Criminal gangs and fraudsters are opportunists at heart, and Valentine’s Day is a good time to remind people of just how sophisticated ‘romance fraud’ scams can be, and how devastating for the individuals involved.
I know from constituent casework that it can happen to anyone, including people who are smart and tech savvy, and certainly not naïve.
But fraudsters are smart and tech savvy too. They can come across as utterly convincing, and they know just how to exploit situations that involve emotional vulnerabilities.
Tackling fraud was part of my previous role as security minister, and it is something I continue to take a close personal interest in, particularly as it is the number-one crime in terms of volume.
It can happen in a multitude of ways – through online shopping and auction sites, fake investment deals, courier frauds that claim to be from the police or banks, scams relating to insurance, fake prize draws or competitions, and even fraudulent schemes for cost-of-living payments.
There is no limit to their inventiveness or creativity. And that means we must remain alert, and to consider the many simple things we can do to help protect ourselves, our friends and loved ones.
The national campaign Take Five is backed by the government and the banking industry, and asks people to take a moment to pause and think before responding to any text, email or phone call that asks you to share any personal or financial information.
A genuine bank would never contact you out of the blue and request your PIN, full password or to move money to another, ‘safe’ account. If you receive an unexpected email or text, think more than twice before clicking on a link. Always question uninvited approaches, as it may be a scam.
Receiving a contact from the police or a bank can automatically make us feel we can trust it, particularly if there is a sense of urgency to protect ourselves or our money. Fraudsters know how to exploit fear and panic in these situations, but just taking a minute to think before acting will potentially save a great deal of heartache.
But romance fraud can be very different, as relationships are built over time. Dating online is now one of the most popular ways for new couples to meet, with millions finding new relationships and romance this way.
Fraudsters are masters of manipulation and use fake profiles to exploit the good nature and emotions of others. There will be flattery and promises, but also excuses of why they cannot meet in person.
If possible, do your own research on the individual. Using a tool like Google’s ‘reverse image search’ can help identify if that photo really belongs to someone else, as it often does.
There is a specific sub-genre of fraudsters who pretend to be soldiers posted abroad, while others are just about to set off to meet you, but just need some cash for the fare. If unsure, talk to friends and family about it. Their perspective could be very valuable.
Always keep your contact through the dating site itself; fraudsters will often try to persuade their victim to move to another platform.
Sadly, it is often the most vulnerable who are targeted. But it sometimes surprises people to hear that while there are a lot of people in their 50s targeted, it happens to a lot of young men in their 20s, too.
A useful guide is the Little Book of Big Scams produced originally by the police, and available online. I’ve also put links to the main information sources and anti-fraud guides for both individuals and businesses on my website – search damianhinds.com
Beware the unexpected. If it appears too good to be true, it probably is.