What is a romance scam and who is most likely to become a victim?

What is a romance scam and how can you reduce the risk of falling victim? (Getty Images)
What is a romance scam and how can you reduce the risk of falling victim? (Getty Images)

Experts are warning singles about the dangers of romance scams head of Valentine’s Day.

By 2035, if current trends continue, more than half of all relationships would have started online, according to research by dating platform eHarmony.

The online dating industry was estimated to be worth £11.7 billion a year, back in 2021, a figure that's only set to grow, now the stigma of meeting online has largely vanished.

Many may have been tempted to register on a dating website or start chatting to potentials via social media in order to find a date for February 14. But while some could find love, others could fall prey to the tactics of romance scammers – who gain their victims’ trust before manipulating them into handing over money.

And the problem may be more widespread than you might think with new research, by Take Five To Stop Fraud, revealing that almost three in 10 (29%) people who have met others online in the past 12 months say they were asked to give or lend money to someone they had not met in person.

And more than half of those asked to hand over cash did so, according to the research commissioned by trade body UK Finance.

Further statistics, by Action Fraud, the reporting centre for fraud and cybercrime in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, reveal 8,957 reports from victims of ‘dating or romance scams’ in 2021, while UK Finance, the banking industry body, found that banks logged 3,270 cases of what it calls ‘romance fraud’ during the same period (up 41%).

While dating app providers are using technology to proactively identify fraudulent users, scammers are still finding their way through these checks, so it’s important to recognise the warning signs of dating fraud.

Everything you need to know about romance scams in 12 points.

Romance scams are on the rise. (Getty Images)
Romance scams are on the rise. (Getty Images)

What is a romance scam? Dating or romance scams happen when the victim gives money or personal information to a fraudster who has deceived them into believing they share a romantic relationship.

Dating scams can often be a 'slow burn'. The fraudster needs to build a rapport and earn trust for the scam to work. "When the time is right, the scammer will usually ask you to send them money, either as a bank transfer, gift card, or in the form of an expensive gift," Helen Fox, a senior personal finance expert from Ocean Finance explains.

The average financial loss for victims of romance scams is a whopping £12,000, according to data from Nationwide Building Society. Male victims lost £9,057 on average to such scams last year and women lost £14,803 typically.

People aged 51-65 are most likely to be victims. New research from TSB reveals that people in this age bracket account for nearly half of money lost to romance fraud. 18-35-year-olds made up around 26% of cases reported, 36-50 year olds accounted for 26%, 51-65 year olds made up 25% of cases and people aged 65-plus accounted for 22%.

Scammers give various reasons for needing money. In 60% of all romance fraud cases analysed by TSB in 2022, scammers asked for financial help with bills, or daily living costs, whilst 21% claimed they were stuck abroad and needed help trying to find a way home.

People aged 51-65 are most at risk of romance scams, research has revealed. (Getty Images)
People aged 51-65 are most at risk of romance scams, research has revealed. (Getty Images)

Blackmail is involved in some romance scams. In a concerning 4% of cases, fraudsters received blackmail payments from their victim, due to having received explicit images from them, or due to personal information having been shared.

Experts are trying to raise awareness of the problem. Match and Ourtime have launched a fraud prevention and awareness campaign, in partnership with the City of London Police (CoLP) and Action Fraud.

What are the signs of a dating scam? It may take a while for a scammer to reveal their true motive, but Fox says there are still subtle signs of a scam that you can spot from day one. For example, if they’re keen to take your conversation away from the chat facilities in most dating sites, preferring to text, WhatsApp or speak on the phone instead.

Asking a lot about you is another red flag. Particularly if they avoid sharing much about themselves. Also details they do share don’t add up, whether because their story changes as the conversation goes on. For example, they may claim to be from a certain location, but not understand local slang.

Ditto falling hard and fast. Perhaps saying they’ve “never felt like this before”, and giving you a pet name early on.

There are some ways to reduce the risk of romance scams. TSB advises consulting a friend or family member immediately if an online relationship starts to involve requests for money. The bank also stresses the importance of not giving personal and sensitive information away. Other tips include keeping your conversations on the dating site you're using and never sending money to someone you're talking to.

Men and women are both at risk of a romance scam. (Getty Images)
Men and women are both at risk of a romance scam. (Getty Images)

A reverse image search is also suggested. Carrying out a reverse image search on your match’s profile pictures can be a useful way to identify someone using a fake profile. "If you find you get results that appear to show the image belongs to somebody else, this could be a sign that you’re speaking to somebody who is using a fake profile," explains Fox.

What to do if you think you've been a victim. “Please don’t feel ashamed or embarrassed – you are not alone," says Pauline Smith, head of Action Fraud. "It’s important that you contact your bank immediately and report it to Action Fraud on 0300 123 2040. In Scotland, please report to Police Scotland directly by calling 101.” Action Fraud covers England, Wales and Northern Ireland – Scotland is not currently part of this service.

Additional reporting PA.