They have all had their identities hijacked on dating websites by fraudsters trying to con women out of thousands of pounds. Anna Moore finds out why so many of us are falling prey to their treacherous charms.
The pandemic has been hard for Angela Kelly*. Her administrative job within a Sussex hospital has required her to work throughout with every reason to fear exposure to a deadly virus. Divorced and single for 15 years, she comes home to an empty house.
‘For many years of my marriage, my relationship with my husband was nonexistent,’ says Angela, now 62. ‘We had separate lives and beds.’ With her adult daughter living abroad and opportunities to see friends or meet new people severely curtailed, she felt lonely. More than ever, life suddenly felt short.
In August 2020, Angela decided to try online dating – a world she knew little about. She chose Ourtime, a site for the over-50s, uploaded a picture and listed the traits she most valued as ‘honesty’ and ‘kindness’.
Within a week, she was contacted by a man who called himself Alek and claimed to live in a town about 30 miles away. His profile showed a picture of a smiling grey-haired man. ‘He looked like a professional,’ says Angela. ‘He told me that his adult son had encouraged him to sign up to online dating, though this wasn’t really his thing. He asked if we could email privately and he sent me this long, beautiful email. The language, his way with words… he sounded very educated. I couldn’t help but be impressed.’
That first email painted a picture designed to garner trust and sympathy. ‘He told me that he was Polish but had worked for years in the US, and hadn’t been in the UK long – so he didn’t know many people,’ says Angela.
‘He said that he was a self-employed construction engineer, and that his wife had died six years ago from cancer. He also mentioned that one of his sons had died as a toddler. He sent a picture of himself with his arm around his one remaining family member, his adult son. He seemed a lonely, decent, hard-working man.’
The emails continued, and soon Alek asked for Angela’s phone number. By now she’d abandoned Ourtime, so there was no possibility of meeting anyone else. ‘I wasn’t nervous waiting for him to call, because I trusted him… he had the most divine voice – deep, kind, attentive.’
With Covid raging outside and a warm, loving man on the end of a phone, Alek quickly took up more of Angela’s time – and headspace. ‘He’d always call at 6am as he said that speaking to me got him through the day,’ she says. ‘He’d call in the evening, too, and message constantly.’ He would ask Angela what she was having for breakfast or dinner and what she was reading. He wanted to know everything about Angela’s daughter. ‘He realised she was the most important thing in my life, so we could talk for ages about what she was up to.
‘At one point, he asked me to download the song “Treasure” by Bruno Mars because this was how he felt about me. No one in my life had been that kind or loving. After all this time – and at a time like this – I had someone.’
Angela didn’t share this experience with anyone. Alek had asked her not to. ‘He said he wanted the chance to meet the people in my life first so they could judge for themselves. I did tell my daughter that I was doing online dating and she told me to “be careful”. I remember thinking, “I don’t need to be careful – this is a genuine man”. At work, people noticed the difference in me. They said I was glowing.’
Angela and Alek talked about meeting up. ‘He said we should meet for coffee halfway, then it changed to a meal,’ she says. ‘I bought three dresses online – I’ve still got them.’ A date was set in September, but a few days before, Alek claimed he’d been called to Manchester to talk about a job, an overseas contract. Less than a week later, he (supposedly) flew out to Turkey. ‘He told me this would be his last job,’ says Angela. ‘After that, he wanted to retire – he built this picture of us growing old together.’ Before he left, Angela suggested they try FaceTiming, but Alek said it wouldn’t work on his phone.
After his departure, Angela heard nothing for a couple of days. When Alek did call, he told her that the location was remote, there was little internet and his computer equipment had been confiscated at the airport due to Covid restrictions. The two continued to talk by phone – he sent pictures of the construction site – and when Angela went out for a birthday meal with friends, he asked her to send a photo. He also suggested they Skype, but the connection lasted a few seconds before cutting out.
On the day after Angela’s birthday, Alek called to ask a favour. ‘He sounded different – stressed – almost begging,’ says Angela. ‘He said that he couldn’t work without his computer equipment and needed someone to go to the Apple store, buy new devices and FedEx it to his interpreter in Cyprus.
‘I cannot understand why I did it, but the truth is I never hesitated,’ says Angela. ‘He said it was urgent, so I went into panic mode because that was the power he’d built up. I saw him as this good, honest person.’ As Angela drove to the Brighton Apple store with Alek’s shopping list, he called to make sure she knew exactly what he needed. ‘But even then, he said, “You’re not talking on the phone and driving at the same time are you?” He wanted to make sure I’d pulled over, that I was safe.’ That day, she spent almost £6,000 on equipment for him.
Angela had never heard of romance fraud – she didn’t know it existed. If she had, she would have recognised so many red flags. ‘Scammers often say they work in the military, on oil rigs, or they’re construction engineers – anything that involves travel and no easy access to bank accounts or Skype,’ says Ruth Grover, who runs the support and advice group ScamHaters United. ‘They are often widowers, and might have lost a child, too. Anything to get your sympathy at an early stage. And they always try to get you off the platform you met on as soon as possible, by asking for your email or phone number. That means they’re not monitored and there’s less of a trail. They usually want you to keep the whole relationship secret, too – that way no one can see it for what it is, warn you off or break the spell.’
The Apple purchases took all of Angela’s savings. ‘He told me how much I’d helped him, that he didn’t know how to thank me,’ says Angela. But as days turned into weeks, and he still hadn’t paid her back, the excuses started. ‘He said that he needed an iPad to sync to the computers and he was getting one from Australia,’ she says. ‘Later he told me his bank account had been frozen. That’s when it hit me – “Oh my God, what have you done?” Businessmen don’t have their bank accounts frozen.’
Alek’s messages and emails began to worry her. ‘He got the name of my daughter wrong,’ she says. ‘Then he sent a picture of the construction site – and it didn’t look like they’d made any progress – or it was a different site. I think he’d meant to send it to another woman he was scamming.’
Angela phoned the police who took the details, including the Cyprus address where she’d sent the goods, but they have not been able to take the case further. ‘I know I’ve lost the money,’ she says. ‘It has been an absolute trauma. I’ll never tell my daughter – she’d lose it. I won’t tell another soul for the rest of my life and I’ll never trust another man.’
According to Action Fraud, the UK’s fraud and cyber-crime reporting centre, reported cases of romance fraud jumped by 26 per cent in 2020, accounting for losses of £68 million, with an average of £10,000 per victim. The average victim is someone in their 50s.
‘Covid has helped scammers massively,’ says Grover. ‘People are at home, separated from their support networks, and there are more older people on tablets and phones to stay in touch with family. Their children tell them to start a Facebook account, they put their relationship status as “widowed” and all of a sudden, all these nice men are messaging to ask, “Are you staying safe?”’
Grover, who is based in Hartlepool, says the victims who contact her – the website gets 3,000 hits a day, and her Facebook page 30,000 visitors a week – are from all over the world. ‘Every single one says, “I can’t believe I was that stupid”. They’ve lost their money, their future – and they’ve lost that unconditional love they thought they’d found.’
Suzie Webb, 41, from Worcester, is a victim who chose not to report her fraud. ‘What can they do?’ she says. Suzie had been at home in lockdown, supporting her elderly father when she joined the dating site Plenty of Fish last November. She was contacted by a man who claimed to be in the US military. He said that his mum lived in Worcester and was dying of cancer, so he was shortly flying in to take over her estate.
‘He sent me pictures, and you would have melted,’ she says. ‘He had the most beautiful blue eyes.’ Suzie had heard of scams so she asked him to send a picture of him holding up a newspaper, or something with the date on it. ‘So he sent a picture of this person holding up a piece of paper with “Suzie” and the date written on it,’ she says. ‘I now know that they can Photoshop anything if they have an image of the person holding something up. At the time I believed him.’
The messages continued every day – Suzie was going to meet him at the airport when he arrived on 2 January. He claimed that Covid was causing constant difficulties, though, and he needed money to pay an agent who would be able to get him here despite the travel restrictions. Suzie had sent him over £1,000 when she began to worry. She went on to ScamHaters United social media platforms – which post multiple pictures of faces commonly used in romance fraud – and saw the man she’d fallen in love with.
She learned that the photo was of a former military officer who’d taken his own life in 2019. ‘I felt sick to my stomach,’ she says. ‘I messaged the person and said that his pictures were of someone who’d died. He told me that I should die, too – then he blocked me.
‘I’ve spent so much time reading about this soldier online and I still cry every night,’ she says. ‘That man was so real to me. I still feel I know him, and that I loved him, even though that doesn’t make sense. That’s what hurts the most.’
And this, says Grover, is another common reaction. ‘These people have felt hope in a hopeless time, met these amazing partners,’ she says. ‘Someone who wants to know everything about them, who messages them first thing in the morning and last thing at night – they believe this is their happily-ever-after. Even when they’ve lost thousands of pounds, they say the hardest part is they still miss them.’
It’s true for Angela. ‘I cannot believe that the person I fell in love with doesn’t exist,’ she says. ‘I miss him terribly, even though he was a lying, cheating fraud. That’s how good he was.’
How to spot a scammer
- ‘When it comes to romance fraud, Covid has created some really plausible reasons as to why someone is in a crisis and needs help,’ says Alex Rothwell, Detective Chief Superintendent at City of London Police. ‘They’re in a medical emergency, they’re suddenly unable to travel, or have a last-minute expense on the way to see you. It has given fraudsters so many reasons as to why they need money urgently.’
- ‘There are more people on dating sites,’ adds Ruth Grover from ScamHaters United, ‘but we have so many victims who met fraudsters on other platforms. Online Scrabble is one, or even on a Fitbit [the fitness-tracking smartwatch]: someone trying to keep fit receives a message saying, “Hi, how are you doing? How many steps have you done?”’
- Police appeal to all victims to report the crime – currently it’s believed that only one in five do. ‘Every piece of information is valuable to us,’ says Rothwell. ‘The more details we have, the more we can close beneficiary bank accounts, block and remove fake profiles, repatriate money and bring people before the courts.’
- Sometimes it is possible for victims to get their money back, especially if they report the crime to their banks immediately and in time to freeze the transaction.
Have you been scammed by a dating fraudster? Tell us your story at email@example.com.
Where to find support
For information, advice as well as a private friends’ group where victims support one another online, visit scamhatersunited.com on Facebook or Instagram. Victims can also visit victimsupport.org.uk, or call 0808 1689111. For police advice on romance fraud, visit actionfraud.police.uk.
*Name has been changed