If you think only lonely middle-aged women ‘fall for’ romance scams, you might be the perfect victim | Scams | The Guardian

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Young woman sitting at desk and using a laptop in the dark
Keanu Reeves keeps me up at night, Brad Pitt wakes me up in the morning, and don’t even get me started on Liam Neeson. The thing is, all they want to do is talk. Via social media. About needing gift cards.
One of my recent conversations with Liam Neeson went like this:
Liam: Can you get steam card. I want to edit some scene here can not get it here. Okay get me 1000 on the card I will reimburse you.
Me: That sounds perfectly reasonable. I’ll buy it this afternoon.
Liam: Okay thanks so much sweetheart.
I sent him the codes from the back of the cards I had supposedly bought, which coincidentally spelt out some ingredients of a Fray Bentos pie: B33F 3XTR4CT; P0RK K1DN3Y; WH34T FL0UR; P4LM 01L; T0M4T0 P45T3 … He wasn’t happy.
OK, OK, so I know these are fraudsters and I’m playing along. I’ve had a lot of fun doing this for quite some time; I engage with them, screenshot the conversations and post them on my X (formerly Twitter) account. As a result of everything I’ve learned I have become determined to help shine a light on what is one of the most financially and emotionally damaging crimes: romance fraud, where an individual, often under a false identity, pretends to be in a romantic relationship with someone purely to take their money. As one woman said to me: “It’s not just the money. He’s broken me.”
Conjure up, if you will, a mental image of a victim of romance fraud. You’re thinking of a lonely, unattractive, less-than-intelligent, middle-aged woman, right? Absolutely not. I have interviewed dozens of victims and not one of them fitted this stereotype. Among the women I spoke to were a doctor, a chief executive, a lawyer and a detective. These are highly intelligent, educated and articulate women at the top of their game, with good networks of friends and family. None of them considered themselves lonely. And here’s another jaw-dropper for you: men can be victims, too. In fact, let’s just rip off the plaster and get it all out: victims of romance fraud come from all sectors of society – any gender, any sexuality, any race, any age and any social class. The fraudsters will target anyone. Yes, even you.
They will find out what they can about you and use it against you. You lost someone you love? So did they. You wish you had children? They have a child who would love you. You are religious? He is a churchgoer. You get the picture. Coercive control is at the very centre of this, and whatever story the fraudster concocts, including the ones pretending to be celebrities, it will end with them urgently needing money.
I find it interesting and frustrating in equal measure when people have the notion that they are too clever to be a victim of fraud. I hear it all the time. Well, be careful. Your overconfidence is one of the ways that fraudsters are able to reach you. Thinking you’re above such things makes you less vigilant, and as you’re forging ahead in your daily cleverness you have forgotten everything that you are too clever to think about. An additional downside is that if you are then defrauded you will be less likely to report it as you will be suffering from unimaginable shame.
Something else I hear on a regular basis is: “Well, of course they’re all Nigerian.” I can’t deny that a lot of romance fraud cases originate in Nigeria and in nearby Ghana, but it’s certainly not exclusive to that area of the world. In recent years, fraudsters in south-east Asia have amassed a staggering fortune through “pig butchering scams”, so-called because they liken the process of wooing their victims to fattening up a pig for slaughter. These scams are a cross between romance fraud and cryptocurrency fraud and are extremely technologically advanced, with fake trading sites set up to allow the investor to think they are in control of their money, even letting them withdraw their initial “gains” to entice them to invest further. And for anyone still dismissing this as something that happens in “those foreign places”, the west isn’t squeaky clean either. A couple of years ago Canada came third in the romance scams geographical table of shame.
Many of the same people also believe that online romance fraud is committed by solitary individuals sitting in internet cafes. It is important to understand that romance fraud is often part of a much bigger criminal enterprise. The money made from these scams funds, among other things, drugs, guns, prostitution and even human trafficking. The fraudsters work together, recruiting and training new scammers with alarming regularity.
So what can be done? Well, we need changes from the top for a start. At the moment, fraud (not just romance fraud) accounts for 40% of all crime in the UK, but only 1% of police resources are dedicated to it.
Clearly this needs to change. The police need more money and more dedicated officers. Banks need to be taught how to spot the signs of romance fraud and then how to communicate with affected customers with compassion and understanding. We should be educating people of all ages, starting in school, and there should be adequate funding for organisations that specifically want to help victims of romance fraud. And my personal bugbear? The language we use. We never refer to someone falling for a burglary or falling for an assault, so why do we do it with fraud? Let’s stop blaming the victims. People will be more inclined to come forward and report it if they aren’t made to feel as if it was their fault.
Romance fraud is underreported, underinvestigated and hugely misunderstood. So I would urge everyone: next time you hear a story of someone who has given money to a person they believed they were in a relationship with, rather than gear up to having a good old scoff, maybe consider that there was more to it than meets the eye. Even Liam Neeson eventually figured out about the codes.
  • Becky Holmes tweets as @deathtospinach. Her first book, Keanu Reeves Is Not in Love With You, will be published on 25 January