This Valentine’s Day, police are reminding the public of the dangers of romance fraud, the impact on its victims and the scale of this growing crime type.

Online dating as a preferred way to meet people has risen considerably over the past few years. In line with this, we have seen online dating fraud rates rise as well.

Last year across Sussex there was a 15 per cent increase in reported romance fraud, with losses reaching £3.8 million in 2023. The average loss to a victim (where a loss was reported) was £14,000.

While we do see reports of in-person romance fraud, 89 per cent of victims report being initially contacted online via dating sites, apps or via social media platforms.

Bernadette Lawrie BEM, Sussex & Surrey Police’s Financial Abuse Safeguarding Officer, explained: “I can’t express how important it is for victims of romance fraud to come forward and report it. It is a horrible crime and is one of the most underreported fraud types we see, and that is in part because the victims feel embarrassed, ashamed and blame themselves a lot of the time for not seeing the warning signs.

“This is a crime where fraudsters prey on the vulnerable, manipulating and grooming their victims over a lengthy period, isolating them from those closest to them, to enable them to exploit them financially. The impact can be so devastating both emotionally and financially on those individuals and also on their wider family.

“I would encourage you to look out for friends and family, particularly any who have entered into a new relationship, which is perhaps becoming intense and moving fast.”

Romance fraud can affect males and females alike and reports come from victims of any age, though the majority are aged 50 or over with the average age being 59. 63 per cent of victims reportedly live alone, and loneliness and social isolation can have a significant impact on victims of dating scams.

Due to the increased contact being made via dating apps and social media, we would always encourage people to stay on a safe dating platform which is regulated, rather than move the conversation off that platform, as is often encouraged by the fraudsters.

In one local example, Mary Chater from East Sussex was contacted online via Facebook messenger in mid-December 2022 by a male calling himself Dr Campbell Smith. The relationship developed quickly with intimate conversations and video calls. Over the course of the relationship the victim was persuaded to send Smith money to assist with medical research which Smith was allegedly carrying out.

It was in mid-February 2023 that the victim’s bank stopped a transaction advising the victim that they thought she was involved in a scam. Mary did some of her own research and discovered that other people had been contacted by a male with the same name. Further checks confirmed that the image which the victim had been provided with, was actually that of a doctor from Denmark. In total she parted with £3,000.

Following an intervention by Sussex Police, under Operation Signature (the force’s process to identify, protect and support vulnerable victims of fraud), Victim Support engaged with Mary until April 2023. The support provided by the victim’s caseworker, Emma Allen, was a mixture of telephone, face to face, and online contact.

If you believe you have been a victim of romance fraud, or you have concerns that someone you know may have been targeted by a romance fraudster, please contact Sussex Police on 101 to report it.

For further information on how to protect yourself from romance fraudsters, please visit our website.