Romance fraudsters who pretended to be lovers with victims to persuade them to give them more than £240,000 have been jailed.
Using internet dating sites, the group hid behind false personas of “Kevin Churchill” and “Kevin Thompson”, pretending to be wealthy businessmen with international lifestyles to target women.
Over time, the fraudsters would get to know their victims and ask to borrow money to help pay for everything from veterinary bills, to legal fees and travel costs.
Believing they were in a loving relationship, two victims handed over £240,000 between 2016 and 2017.
The money was passed through various bank accounts.
Detective Constable Rebecca Mason, from Surrey Police’s economic crime unit, said: “This type of crime plays mercilessly on personal emotions.
“These women have gone from the high excitement of being in love to the extreme low of realising they have been victims of crime and their trust and generosity has been completely abused.
“I can’t emphasise enough, having got to know them throughout this case, that these are both intelligent, sensible women who were taken advantage of by a cunning, cruel and highly manipulative gang of fraudsters.”
The three ringleaders who were sentenced included Yaw Sarpong, 22, from Hampshire, who was given 15 months’ imprisonment for conspiracy to commit fraud by false representation.
Nicholas Adade, 23, from Stoke-on-Trent, was sentenced to three years and seven months for conspiracy to commit fraud by false representation and money laundering, and 14 months for money laundering to run concurrently.
The third ringleader, Eric Ocansey, 35, from Birmingham, was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment for conspiracy to commit fraud by false representation, and 14 months for money laundering to run concurrently.
The other group members included Obed Addo, 37, from Roehampton, south-west London, who was jailed for 21 months for money laundering.
Daniel Keh, 25, from Enfield, north London, was jailed for 10 months for converting criminal property and supplying articles to be used in fraud, and six months for money laundering to run concurrently.
Makeda Stair, 23, from Enfield, will be sentenced on August 9.
In a statement, one of the victims named “Sharon”, a mother of two children, said: “I lost my sense of self-worth and my integrity, which through the help of victim support and the support of my children, I’ve managed to restore.
“There were some very black days and it’s been an uphill battle.
“Financially, I lost everything and this will continue throughout the rest of my life. I am systematically repaying those I borrowed from and I’ve had to get a flat share.
“I just manage to cover my share of the rent and bills, and have nothing left over.”
Bernadette Lawrie, Surrey Police’s financial safeguarding officer, a specialist role supporting vulnerable victims of fraud, said: “Fraudsters take money but they also take away their victims’ confidence and destroy lives.
“We do all we can to help and support romance fraud victims to move on from this and make sure they don’t become victims of this crime again.”
Surrey Police’s advice on how to stay safe when dating online is:
– Don’t rush into an online relationship – get to know the person, not the profile. Ask plenty of questions.
– Analyse their profile – confirm the person’s identity. Check the person is genuine by putting their name, profile pictures or any repeatedly-used phrases and the term “dating scam” into your search engine.
– Talk to your friends and family – be wary of anyone who tells you not to tell others about them.
– Evade scams – never send money or share your bank details with someone you have only met online, no matter what reason they give or how long you have been speaking to them.
– Stay on the dating site messenger service – do not use email, phone, social media or other messaging apps until you are confident the person is who they say they are.
Surrey Police has recently joined forces with Scamalytics, an organisation that is creating a global blacklist of scammers.
Using an online form, anyone can enter images, names and details of profiles suspected to be fronts for romance fraudsters.
Scamalytics can analyse the pictures, names used, profile details and IP addresses and, from those, find other fake profiles managed by the same criminals. These can then be taken down.
Ms Lawrie added: “Romance fraud can be perpetrated by serious organised crime gangs, who can be based anywhere in the world, and can be hiding behind as many as 50 different dating profiles. By using Scamalytics’ service we make it as hard as possible for them to ply their illegal trade in the UK.
“If you feel you’ve been a victim of romance fraud, I would really urge you to report it to Surrey Police on 101, or online on our website. Then either you can let Scamalytics know, or we can do that for you.”