In February 2019, Anna, a finance professional in her 50s, joined the dating website Zoosk. She had been single for four years, recovering from an incredibly difficult, abusive marriage. “I was finally ready to meet someone,” she says.
So, when she met Andrew, a handsome Bulgarian food importer living in London, she was thrilled. The pair were soon spending hours talking on the phone each day. Anna was smitten. “He showered me with love and affection,” she says. “If you imagine candy floss, I was the stick and he was the sugar wrapped around me. I felt as though I was floating.”
They made plans to meet up, but Andrew told her he had to go to France for an urgent business trip. They continued to speak on the phone and also, occasionally, on video chat. About five weeks after they first made contact, Andrew asked to borrow money; just a small amount. “He told me he’d had a work crisis and needed help with port charges for a delivery. He was so distressed by the unexpected charge. I felt sorry for him.”
Anna thought Andrew was her perfect man. Now, she believes he was a character invented by a criminal gang to extort her.
So-called “romance fraud” – where unsuspecting victims are scammed by someone with whom they have formed a relationship – is nothing new. But online dating makes such fraud easier; experts saythese scams have increased in sophistication and frequency.
Then came the pandemic – when online dating was the only kind that was allowed. According to Action Fraud, the UK’s reporting centre for fraud and cybercrime, 8,863 cases were reported to the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau (NFIB) between November 2020 and October 2021, up from 6,968 the previous year, with total losses for the past year amounting to almost £92m. Daters who started online relationships between Christmas and Valentine’s Day were the most susceptible, with 901 reports recorded in March 2021.
These figures are likely to be the tip of the iceberg – Action Fraud says the shame and stigma around romance fraud mean many people don’t report it.
Things soon got worse for Anna – Andrew’s requests began to snowball. He told her his daughter was unwell, then that she had died and that he desperately needed money for repatriation and funeral costs. Anna checked the charges were legitimate, before sending money directly to a funeral services company in France. Whenever she became suspicious, Andrew assuaged her fears. “I’d be sucked back into his all-powerful love bubble. I was also getting receipts for many things and he constantly had an explanation for me.”
The following year, Andrew had more unpaid charges on his shipping containers. Then, in March 2021, everything got more serious – he told her he had been taken hostage by loan sharks and was being tortured. “I was absolutely distraught. He said he was being stripped and beaten, and sent me pictures of his broken arm. He was locked in a room with no windows.”
In the summer of 2021, when Andrew claimed he was still being held hostage, Anna asked a French Facebook group if anyone had seen him. One reply astonished her. “A woman contacted me and told me the man I’d posted a picture of was Juan Soler, an Argentinian-Mexican actor. She tried to explain I’d been scammed, but I couldn’t believe it.” Anna confronted Andrew, but he said he could explain and “made me question how I could doubt him”. Anna’s new Facebook friend, meanwhile, spent months trying to convince Anna to call Action Fraud. “I pointed out that we’d had video calls, but she told me he’d been using technology to superimpose a moving image.”
Despite the mounting evidence against Andrew, Anna didn’t want to be responsible for his death at the hands of loan sharks if he was telling the truth. By the time she had been convinced to sever ties with him, in October this year, she had lost £350,000. “I had spent the year completely unstable, trapped in this abusive cycle. I’d become obsessed with preventing his pain.”
After ending the relationship, she cried for weeks. “It felt like losing a husband that I loved with every inch of my heart and soul. I was never going to get any closure or say goodbye.” Anna has now reported Andrew to Action Fraud; the situation is under investigation.
Olivia James, a trauma therapist, explains why romance fraud is uniquely seductive. “Many of us have wounds around our age, appearance and past relationships that make us susceptible to someone promising love. It’s tempting to ignore doubts and see what we want to see,” she says. This cognitive process is known as “betrayal blindness”. “Sometimes people have an inkling, but the fear of abandonment is too much.”
It is not uncommon for people to ignore signs of cheating or accept crumbs of affection in place of real commitment. “Romance fraud is just a more extreme version of something that lots of us have experienced,” says James. “For some people, there’s an element of rescue fantasy, too. If they can help this person, they’ll be able to live out their happily-ever-after romance.”
It is a particularly cruel crime, says James. The hurt it causes, alongside the loss of financial stability, can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder and other long-term mental health conditions. “People feel completely destabilised. They stop trusting themselves or anyone else. As humans, we need connections with others, so being betrayed by someone you thought was your soulmate is incredibly hard.”
The love-bombing tactic used by such scammers can be hard to resist. “These online romances can make people feel as if they have found a knight or woman in shining armour, because they’re getting showered with affection they may not have previously received,” she says. “But this form of attention can be a form of emotional abuse used to control people.” Societal pressure to find “the One” increases victims’ susceptibility, too. “Not having found that can make people feel like a failure and leaves them even more vulnerable to betrayal.”
Samantha Cooper, who runs Rogue Daters, an investigation company specialising in romance fraud, agrees it is becoming increasingly common. “The most targeted age groups seem to be people over the age of 45 – especially women. By this age, they may own a house or a successful business, or have received an inheritance.” As with Anna, many of Cooper’s clients struggle to accept that their partner isn’t who they thought they were – even after being presented with evidence. “Scammers are manipulative and use grooming techniques,” she says. “Once a person has been scammed, in most cases it is impossible to get the money sent back, so our biggest challenge is preventing this from happening in the first place.”
Such deceptions can continue offline. Carol Goodall, 62, met her former partner Gary on a dating website at the end of 2015. “I was working long hours as a carer and it was nice to be able to talk to someone. I’d had a difficult marriage that had ended nine years earlier and I was very lonely.” Gary seemed like a wonderful man. The relationship moved quickly; by April 2016, he had asked Goodall to marry him. Although she worried it was a bit fast, friends encouraged her to take the plunge. “Everything was so great. I’d been honest about my experiences with my ex and he was the opposite – always kind and thoughtful.”
But a few days before they were due to marry, in September 2016, he told her there was a problem with his divorce papers and that they had to delay the wedding. “All his excuses sounded plausible,” says Goodall. “Looking back, he always showed me papers when I was busy cooking or cleaning, then pulled them away.”
By November, Gary suggested having a blessing while they waited for the official paperwork. He also suggested that Goodall sell her three-bedroom house so they could pool their resources to buy a bigger place. “He adored my kids and told me he wanted what was best for them.” Due to Goodall’s long hours, Gary handled the house sale and told her that he had transferred the money into a joint account.
While they looked for their own place, they rented a home. But soon Gary was disappearing in the evenings and at weekends. When Goodall raised concerns, Gary reassured her that he loved her and would do anything for her. In a last-ditch attempt to distract and manipulate her, he claimed he had cancer. “It was devastating. I’d lost my mum to the disease and he knew how much it had hurt me.”
One day in 2018, Goodall was contacted by another woman: “She was also engaged to Gary. He’d sold her house, too, and she had never seen the money.” Goodall learned that Gary’s real name was Richard Robinson – and that he was known to the police as a conman. “I feel like I’ve been incredibly stupid, but he was so convincing. I am heartbroken and unable to trust my own judgment. My confidence has been shattered. I’m still lonely, but I don’t know how I’ll ever be able to trust anyone again,” she says.
Robinson was sentenced to 10 years in jail in 2020 for defrauding two women, but Goodall was not able to recover the £250,000 she lost. She has moved to a one-bedroom flat and has little money left for food or furniture. “As much as I want to forget it, I can’t. I struggle to get out of bed, to go to work, and there have been many times I wanted to end my life. I can’t understand how this has happened to me.”
Lisa Mills is a senior fraud manager at Victim Support, which offers guidance for people affected by scams. She says that romance fraud makes up about one-fifth of the cases in her area of Sussex, mostly targeted through online dating platforms or social media. “A lot of dating websites are trying to clamp down on fake profiles, so criminals are changing tactics and using other platforms, like Facebook. They trawl through profiles to build up a profile of themselves that a victim might be interested in,” she says. “We advise people to privatise all their settings, as people with lots of information online can be more easily duped – scammers can create a more ‘suitable’ partner for them to trust.”
Although it might not seem romantic, she also suggests people do some research when they meet someone new. “You can use Google to do a reverse image search and check the person’s name,” she says. “Look out for red flags. Anyone who can’t meet up, is constantly away or can’t phone or video call properly is potentially a scammer.”
Keith Grinsted, 69, says loneliness is the root cause of this growing problem. As well as being targeted himself, Grinsted knows of other victims through his online support group, Goodbye Lonely, which he set up in 2020. “I was very low, and there’s an element of desperation when you’re single,” he says. “I started online dating so I didn’t have to go through another lockdown alone.” Because he was so eager to meet someone, he gave potential partners the benefit of the doubt, even when he spotted red flags.
Last year, he began speaking to Tina, whom he hoped to meet when restrictions lifted. After many weeks of chatting to Grinsted, she told him she was living in poverty. “She started sending pictures of empty food bowls, so I sent over some money for food,” he says. But when she asked for more money to pay for flights back from the US to meet him, alarm bells began to ring.
“She claimed to be visiting sick relatives, but I couldn’t understand how she’d flown there in lockdown,” he says. Instead of giving her money, he offered to book her flight home. She disappeared without a trace. The emotional impact was huge. “I thought I’d found someone wonderful, and we’d spoken about potentially living together,” he says. “When it all fell apart, I deliberately kept myself awake – I didn’t want the next day to arrive and to feel even worse. It took a long time to recover.” He has been targeted since then, but has become more attuned to the warning signs.
According to Dan Parkinson from City of London police, reports of romance fraud have been rising since 2017. “Criminals are likely to have been exploiting the inability of victims to gain timely support and advice from others,” he says. “Remember: never give money to someone you haven’t met, no matter how well you think you know them. If you feel uncomfortable or unsure, speak to trusted friends and family members and get their advice.”
Mills says many people feel ashamed that others will judge them for falling for such scams. “Victim-blaming is a particular problem, because on the face of it someone has given their money away. But if people knew the inner workings of the scams – the manipulative techniques and an individual’s personal situation – they might feel differently.”
Such judgment means many victims turn to charities such as Victim Support, or peer support groups such as the Society of Citizens Against Relationship Scams, rather than loved ones. Anna is one. “I know they’d tell me I was insane, but it’s impossible to explain how all‑consuming and addictive this love for Andrew was,” she says.
She is determined to ensure others avoid the same trap. “I am intelligent, but I’m not the only person this has happened to. The heart and mind can be fragile, especially after abuse. The combination of taking someone’s heart while robbing them day in, day out exceeds evil.”
Some names have been changed. If you think you have been a victim of fraud, contact your bank immediately and report it to Action Fraud at actionfraud.police.uk or by calling 0300 123 2040.
In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or by emailing email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at befrienders.org