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Friday 16th April, 2021 | Author: Justin Inson [Member (F2138)] | Filed under: Case studies

Romance Fraud Investigation

According to UK Finance, Bank Transfer Fraud linked to Romance Scams increased in 2020 by 20% compared to the previous year. UK Action Fraud confirmed that the total value lost to such scams over the period was £68m, which has now overtaken online shopping fraud.

The significant increase can mainly be attributed to the necessary restrictions imposed as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, as more people turned to online dating and hobby forums to substitute meeting in person. This has also further enabled Romance Fraud by providing the scammer with an additional excuse for not meeting their victim in person.

So, what is Romance Fraud?

Romance Fraud has been defined as "the engineering of a supposed friendship or relationship for fraudulent, financial gain."

This is not a new phenomenon, it dates back to the 16th century under the guise of a scam developed to target British citizens, in which they were led to believe that a wealthy Englishman was being held prisoner in Spain, and if the victim of the scam assisted financially with his release, they would not only receive a large financial reward in return but would also be looked upon favourably as the suitor for the affections of the wealthy Englishman's beautiful young daughter. Of course, after the victim had been lured into putting up the money, 

he was later informed that the first rescue attempt had failed and asked for more money for further attempts.

This was the early form of Advance Fee or Romance Fraud, and the format is much the same now, albeit the paper and pen made from goose feather have been substituted by a computer and the internet, which affords the scammer to easily access an inordinate amount of people whilst disguising their identity.

You may have heard the term 'Catfishing' in a similar context, however, while both are usually carried out by setting up a fake profile to trick people who are looking for love, Catfishing is not always for financial gain but can be as a cruel hoax, for revenge, or personal gratification. The "catfish" refers to the predator who creates the false identity. What they both have in common, however, is that the scammer sets up a false personal profile on a social networking site for fraudulent or deceptive purposes.

The Psychology

Unlike those who use dating sites to deceive the victim into sleeping with them, the Romance Fraudster will spend a lot of time getting to know the victim to study them. They will use mirroring techniques to make the victim think they have many things in common, whether it be being recently bereaved, divorced, or having similar hobbies and interests. The victim is groomed to confuse their consciousness and thinking. The scammer will be looking for the requisite type of person and use clever psychological language to manipulate and progress the relationship. The scammer will profess their love for the victim very quickly. Once the victim has been led to believe they are in a loving and romantic relationship, their brain will release dopamine, their serotonin levels will increase, and oxytocin will be produced. This causes the victim to feel a surge of positive emotion, driving them to a source of addiction. The victim will want to believe the scam is real, even though it is not. Once the relationship is established, the scammer will ask the victim for money using a multitude of fictitious scripts that have been tried and tested, ultimately using emotional blackmail to extort money out of them.

Who are the Fraudsters and where are they from?

The scams are usually perpetrated by international organised crime gangs, most prevalent in West African countries such as Ghana. However, scams of this nature are being carried out all over the world. The scammers will be carrying out multiple scams at any given point in time.

Who are the Scammers’ Target Audience?

With over 4.6 billion people across the world using the internet and over 235 million of them using dating sites, not to mention hobbies, shared interests, gaming sites, and forums, there is a very large pond for scammers to fish. Their ideal candidate will be someone looking for love, who is lonely or emotionally vulnerable. They usually target age groups that are more likely to have money or assets. They will also target caring professions such as the NHS, which may disclose their occupation on the dating website.

As an example of how convincing the scammers can be and that it could happen to anyone, in a recent case, a former Special Police Constable Anne Larkin from East Yorkshire was interviewed on ITV to tell her story as she had fallen for a romance scam after losing her husband, costing her nearly £500k. She was using an online photography forum, when the scammers approached her, taking advantage of her grief and subsequently manipulating her into giving them nearly all her money. The 'penny dropped' when they pressured her to sell her house and car. She subsequently reported the case to 'Action Fraud', but she is unlikely to get any of her money back.

How will I know if I am being scammed?

The scammer will usually want to move the conversation off the dating site or social media platform and onto text, WhatsApp, or telephone, as soon as possible. Anyone can cheaply purchase or subscribe to a UK phone number online and use it from anywhere in the world. They can also buy a pay-as-you go SIM, which does not need to be registered. Worldwide IP addresses can also be used to hide their location or appear as if they are in the country they informed their victim they live in. The scammer will wish to avoid being traced and any inconsistencies with their story being revealed. They will also want to guard against and have a contingency plan should their fake profile be deleted.

The scammer may also ask for a lot of personal information, such as date of birth, family name, pet name, etc. Some online dating scams do not want to take the money directly from their victims but want to impersonate them to carry out an even more sophisticated fraud and gain access to the victim's online bank account. Another red flag is that they will ask you not to discuss it with friends and family and to keep the relationship a secret. The scammer will also avoid any video communication or make excuses as to why they cannot chat, or if they do, it will be too dark to see them. This is obviously because they have used someone else's images to create their fake profile. They will always use an appropriately aged and attractive person to flatter and attract their victim.

Even if the scammer says they are from somewhere in the UK, they will quickly invent a cover story to place them out of the country, usually saying that they are a contractor on an oil rig or serving in the armed forces. This will lead them to request money, as they will say they cannot access their bank account or that it has been hacked and they cannot do anything from their current location. They may also say that they have a lucrative contract that is in jeopardy due to a piece of machinery breaking down, and they need money to repair or replace it to finish the contract. All these stories will be a form of 'Advanced Fee Fraud', in which the scammer will offer financial and romantic rewards for a short-term advance. The common themes include requesting money to enable them to release their substantial inheritance, promising that this will allow them to be together with their victim, get married, and live a life of luxury. Other variations can include requests for money for flights to the UK so they can finally be united, but they are then stopped for some reason and falsely detained at the airport and require more money for bail and further advances to cover costs. Another deception is being involved in an accident and requiring money for medical fees.

If the victim asks too many questions or says they don't have the money, the scammer will apply emotional blackmail, saying, if they loved them, they will send the money, or the scammer will become irate. They may even provide some convincing fake documents or get a friend to make contact (known as othering) to add credibility to their story. The basic premise is that the scammer uses a mix of technology and psychology to convince the victim that they will be starting a new life with their partner and the money will be refunded. In some instances, the scammer will send a forged post-dated cheque to persuade their victim.

The scammer may also ask their victim to send them gifts such as phones, laptops, or gift cards as an alternative way of extorting money, which, makes it more difficult to prove any crime has been committed.

Usually, the scammer will transfer any money the victim has sent them through several different bank accounts, making it harder for the authorities to track and trace.

During the course of the Romance Fraud, the scammer may ask their victim to perform sexual acts online or send compromising images of themselves. The scammer will then blackmail the victim with the threat of putting the material online or sending it to people in the victim's address book. This is known as Sextortion.

What should the victim do?

Fear, repercussions, or embarrassment deter the victim from reporting being scammed. The victim will not wish to admit to friends, family or peers that their relationship was not real, and it was all a scam

The most important thing is for the victim to refrain from sending any more money, details, or documents to the scammer. They should then report the matter to the Police or via Action Fraud. Their bank should be notified, as should the site where they met the scammer.

What can be done?

Banks now have a 'confirmation of payee facility', which tells you whether the payee's name matches the account number you are sending the money to before you proceed. However, it has a geographical limit as it only works in the UK. You must be very cautious about making payments to bank accounts outside the UK. Law enforcement liaison officers in different countries may be able to freeze assets and recover some or all of the money if they are notified early enough and pursue a prosecution.

Fraud by misrepresentation is a criminal offence in the UK under Section 2 of the Fraud Act 2006, and the maximum sentence for romance fraud linked to money laundering would carry a maximum sentence of up to 14 years imprisonment.

If you are threatened with Sextortion do not pay the ransom or respond to the sextortor's, but merely block them and then notify the Police. Should your images and videos have been released and posted on the internet, then the Police can provide information on organisations to take them down immediately. They have a 94% removal success rate. There is also a revenge porn helpline funded by the Home Office.

Why Instruct an Investigator?

The victim may be unsure as to whether they have been scammed by romance fraud, or maybe online dating, and suspicious as to whether the person they have been talking to is who they say they are. They may also be embarrassed to talk to friends and family or feel ashamed to admit that their romance was not real and that they have parted with a lot of money. It may also be that they are not able to go to the Police as they have insufficient evidence.

An Investigator will be able to provide a strictly confidential service in which they can provide a view. They will then be able to advise on what enquiries they would recommend, to establish whether the romantic interest is genuine or a fraudster. This may involve analysing images, documentation, and communications exchanged, and also undertaking investigations utilising open-source intelligence (OSINT) to establish the identity, location, and authenticity. If necessary, discrete enquiries can be made with companies and authorities to establish whether the person is genuine. All enquiries will be carried out in an ethical and legally compliant manner so that the evidence is not compromised and can be used, if necessary, as evidence in a Court of Law at a later date. The Investigator can also provide advice and information on free helplines, websites, law enforcement, and authorities that can help. A few examples of these are:

The National Crime Agency; Police National Fraud Intelligence Bureau; Action Fraud; Victim Support; Get Safe Online; and the Revenge Porn Helpline.

There are a lot of people, especially the older generation, who will not be internet savvy and need reassurance.

The key is to stop all communication, do not pay the person any money or make any further payment if you have already done so, and tell someone you can trust. For a relatively small fee, an Investigator can save you a lot of money and provide you with peace of mind.

Any investigation must comply with both civil and criminal law, not only to justify the methods used and to protect innocent parties, and avoid prosecution, but also to be admissible as evidence. A Legitimate Interest Assessment (LIA) and Data Protection Impact Assessment (DPIA) must also be completed, to comply with the General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR) and the Data Protection Act 2018.

When hiring an investigator, whatever the specialism required, it is always advisable to ensure they have the requisite skillset, qualifications, and insurance. The simplest way to do this is to check that the investigator is a member of the Association of British Investigators. By instructing an ABI member, you will have the assurance that they have been DBS checked, have demonstrated the necessary qualifications or industry experience; are financially stable; have demonstrated their professional ability to the high standard required; have passed the scrutiny of an interview panel; are registered with the information commissioner's office; have appropriate professional indemnity insurance; can be further held accountable for their actions through the association's robust disciplinary system. Further, the ABI is the only association in this industry to be recognised by the Law Society of England and Wales and included in the Law Society of Scotland's approved Supplier Scheme.

If we can assist with any enquiries or instructions you may have, please do not hesitate to contact us, we will be happy to be of assistance:

Article submitted by Justin Inson (Full Member F2138) of Q10 Investigations