Romance Fraud in Covid-19: Just Swipe Right

An extract of this article by Kate McMahon, Jane Guthrie and Mai Holdom was published in The Times on 23 April 2020.

Will you self-isolate with me?”

As we enter our third month of Covid-19, weeks on from lockdown, it’s prime time for the romance fraudster to ask such a question of his (or her) prey. Easy to ask, difficult to deliver on and followed up with a serving of false regret when it doesn’t work out. Perhaps it’s no surprise that Britain’s bored and lonely singletons are increasingly turning to internet dating sites and applications, determined to relieve tedium and find a soulmate for the next, great pandemic. But as your Tinder traffic hits a high and your Hinge “likes” increase, so do your chances of being defrauded: Just swipe right.

A number of factors have converged in recent times, spurred on by corona-vibes. The first is an increased probability of meeting online. Since 2012, Tinder in particular has hastened the virtual-love frequency. Even in infancy, Tinder saw over 1 billion swipes per day.[1] As of August 2019, heterosexual couples in the US were more likely to meet a romantic partner online than through personal contacts and connections.[2] In the UK, approximately one in three relationships now start online.[3] By 2031, it is estimated that 1 in 2 relationships will commence with online interaction according to E-Harmony.[4]

It’s not just young people attracted to the ease of online dating: older generations are finding it appealing. Research by E-Harmony has shown that the biggest growth segment for the next decade will be the 55-64 age group, who will welcome an additional 30% in the number of singletons and an increase in their usage of the internet. Match.com says their fastest growing group of online daters are those 50 and over. [5] However, as new trust in technology for relationships grows, so does increased risk. Many of those meeting people are new to online scams – both romantic and financial. In 2017, Action Fraud received around 7 romance fraud reports every day. AGE UK reported that a quarter of victims are in their 50s and lost £10,000 on average.[6]  In 2018, Action Fraud received approximately 12 such reports per day (4,555 reports were made in 2018). Fraudsters have long recognised that the elderly are vulnerable targets. The average age of victims of mass marketing postal fraud is 75 and above. This is the non-cyber version of a romance fraud or an online investment scheme.

Most of us wonder how we could manage to get defrauded by someone we have never met (although sometimes people do meet their romance fraudsters – just not very often or for very long, typically). It is a feature of the “catfish” fraudster that they do not, and cannot, meet up with their new love. A catfish is used to lure (someone) into a relationship by means of a fictional online persona. This may go hand-in-hand with why they require a transfer of money – perhaps they need a plane ticket to get to that first date whilst their money is tied up elsewhere. You can imagine a corona-catfish in self-isolation needing an urgent £10k+ transfer because they can’t go to the bank in person…

So why do people fall for giving strangers their money? Firstly, these people don’t feel like strangers. These fraudsters have mastery of sincerity and appreciation, listen carefully and remember every tale told to them (yes, they probably are writing it down because you’re not their only true love). They will often, depending on sophistication, have impressive social media profiles to match their tales- and perhaps even a spreadsheet to keep track of their victims, colour-coded as to likeliness to provide money and level of suspicion (Is the potential victim asking too many questions? Did they catch me out? Delete Profile and disappear.). They can even send gifts and flowers to show “real” gestures of burgeoning love. And now Covid-19 is dishing out the perfect scenario for the catfish fraudster – he or she is no longer required to think of an excuse as to why they are unable to meet in person: It’s against the law to do it.

If your incredulity is tested by these tales, remember catfishing can be highly sophisticated. In 2017 Iranian hackers used a fake Facebook profile to target an unsuspecting tech-consultant  at Deloitte, who fell for the wholly fabricated “Mia Ash” who appeared to have multiple social media accounts and utilised photos of a real person (this happens much more often than you’d imagine). Posing as Ms. Ash, the hackers gained the trust of the consultant, eventually convincing him to download an Excel file infected with malware. To Deloitte’s credit, its cybersecurity protections prevented the malware from reaching its network[7], but absent the super-systems of a company like Deloitte, it would be easy to end up with egg on your face. It really is true: Love makes a fool of us all.

So how significant is this issue? In 2015, romance fraud losses that occurred to Brits totalled just over £25 million[8] – current figures are almost double this. In 2017, romance fraud resulted in Brits being defrauded by £41 million, equating to £11,500 per victim.[9] London City Police saw a report of romance fraud once in every three hours.[10] In 2018, reports made to Action Fraud revealed a loss of over £50 million, a 27% increase since the previous year.[11] UK Finance reports that romance scams increased 64% in the first half of 2019 compared to the year before.[12] The victims are not doubling every 2 and a half days, but it’s got a coronavirus upswing vibe.

The speed of these frauds is also sobering: In less than 30 days of contact, the average victim will make their first transfer of money to the catfish fraudster.[13] In the United States, the Federal Trade Commission received three times the number of reports of romance fraud since 2015, and equated the loss to be $201 million, an increase of 40 per cent since 2018.[14] It’s widely acknowledged that these numbers do not accurately represent the true scale of the problem: Given the embarrassing nature of the experience, victims are reluctant to report the crime. Almost half of victims report the crime having a significant impact on their health and financial wellbeing (and this significantly increases for older victims). It makes sense that as the online dating world opens up, the catfish fraudsters cash in. The same goes in the event of a national emergency, when people are at their most vulnerable and perhaps, prone to romance and emotion.

Since the emergence of Covid-19 we are seeing an enormous increase in coronavirus-related frauds and scams, including in romance fraud. Action Fraud has reported an increase of online fraud by 400% in March 2020.[15] Warnings of online scams and frauds amidst Coronavrius have recently been amplified by Action Fraud and police, who are stressing the importance of online cyber security. However, despite the increased warnings, as the outbreak of Coronavirus worsens, we are also seeing the graduated withdrawal of the police force. Met Police have said that tackling violent crimes is still their daily priority. Emergency laws have now been enacted to give police officers the power to detain people with symptoms and disperse crowds who aren’t following those lockdown rules; a new area of policing that draw attention away from fraud-related crimes. Now the police are drawing up contingency plans as they expect to lose up to a fifth of staff to illness or self-isolation: this doesn’t bode well for the tricky work of chasing ghosts.

Fraud was already difficult to police in the UK: A 2020 review of the City of London Police (the UK’s lead fraud force) and the effectiveness of investigations found: “There is an overwhelming mismatch between the scale of fraud offences and the capacity and capability of forces to investigate them”. Fraud across Wales and England accounts for one in three crimes but only 2% reach court; despite nearly 2,000 fraud offences being committed daily in England and Wales, just one in 50 is prosecuted. In 2019, fraud reporting jumped by 15%[16] against otherwise static offending figures.

It’s well known that fraud is costly, time consuming and difficult to investigate and cyber crime is often more so. Romance fraud is the intersection between fraud and cyber crime: Victims should not hold their breath that it will be investigated during this time of national crisis.

So how can we avoid falling victim to a romance fraud?

We are seeing increased warnings from the police and Action Fraud, although their responses to crimes may be down, heed those warnings and be vigilant. If it does happen to you, report it to help others: More victims mean more focus on the crime. No matter how plausible their need for money may be, just don’t give potential partner any money until you know them well (which should take 12 months, if you need a timeframe). Nor should you give any other third party any money, and most certainly, you should never share your banking or card details. If someone asks you for money, you should immediately be on alert. When it comes to an online relationship, the only thing someone should be asking for is your star sign.

Ask plenty of questions of your new love and do not rush into an online relationship. Talk to your friends and family about the person you have met, especially if they are asking for money. Show someone you can confide in your conversations with them. Analyse a profile carefully: We know, this isn’t romantic. Recognise the signs – are they asking a lot of questions about you, and giving little information about themselves? Have they instantly tried to switch to communication off the dating App? Does what they say reflect reality (for example, they might say they are Cambridge educated, yet their grammar is very poor)? These are some ways in which you can protect yourself online. Dating apps and websites can too be doing more – verifying photos, names, emails and ages.  At the moment, it is all too easy to create a dating profile

Banks are also on alert. They have amped up their warnings upon any new or unrecognised bank transactions people enter into: A fitness fanatic girlfriend of mine recently received a phone call to tell her that her card had been stolen as it had just been used in McDonalds for £2.99 and the transaction was so unusual that her bank instantly cancelled the card. Monzo, a popular and easy new banking app now gives all customers a new warning before they make new payee transfers. Recognition by banks of unusual transactions, especially in this time, will also be key.

What are victims doing to get justice? Those that can afford it are utilising private prosecutions, in all areas of fraud including romance fraud. Investigations are conducted swiftly and target return of funds. Private prosecutors may apply to the State for a contribution to their legal fees upon completion of a prosecution which can be useful for victims.

As we race towards a future in which 50% of all relationships commence with an online interaction and an inevitable increase in romance fraud. At the current rate, this is going to cost the economy billions in economic loss alone, even with low reporting numbers. In 2020 we will have Covid-19 making falling victim all the easier.  Maintaining social distance will mean for many maintaining an online relationship. Brits have already lost enough to the Coronavirus: Save the pounds for real life romance you can enjoy once we’re all free.

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/30/fashion/tinder-the-fast-growing-dating-app-taps-an-age-old-truth.html

[2] https://news.stanford.edu/2019/08/21/online-dating-popular-way-u-s-couples-meet/

[3] https://news.sky.com/story/dark-side-of-online-dating-crimes-rise-by-300-in-five-years-11073230; https://news.sky.com/story/finding-love-online-more-than-half-of-couples-set-to-meet-via-the-internet-11871341

[4] https://www.eharmony.co.uk/dating-advice/online-dating-unplugged/over-50-of-couples-will-meet-online-by-2031

[5] https://us.sagepub.com/sites/default/files/upm-assets/78811_book_item_78811.pdf

https://us.sagepub.com/sites/default/files/upm-assets/78811_book_item_78811.pdf page 15

[6] https://www.ageuk.org.uk/globalassets/age-uk/documents/reports-and-publications/reports-and-briefings/safe-at-home/rb_oct17_scams_party_conference_paper_nocrops.pdf page 2.

[7] https://www.forbes.com/sites/jasonbloomberg/2017/10/14/fear-these-three-types-of-phish-catphishing-enterprise-targets/#2d1df1e679f1

[8] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-38678089

[9] https://www.ageuk.org.uk/latest-press/articles/2018/february18/age-uk-reveals-the-huge-amounts-of-money-lost-to-romance-fraud/

https://www.actionfraud.police.uk/news/victims-lost-41-million-to-romance-fraud-in-2017

[10] https://www.getsafeonline.org/press/dating-fraud-reported-every-3-hours-according-to-latest-national-figures/

[11] https://www.surrey.police.uk/romancefraud; http://news.cityoflondon.police.uk/r/1191/don_t_invest_your_heart_in_a_fauxmance__victims_l

[12] https://www.ukfinance.org.uk/press/press-releases/over-half-those-looking-love-online-vulnerable-romance-scams

[13] https://www.getsafeonline.org/press/dating-fraud-reported-every-3-hours-according-to-latest-national-figures/

[14] https://www.aarp.org/money/scams-fraud/info-2019/romance.html

[15] https://www.bedfordshire.police.uk/news-and-appeals/corona-fraud-warning-march20

[16] https://www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/about-the-city/about-us/Documents/action-fraud-report.pdf

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