When two policemen knocked on Roy Twiggs’s door and asked whether he had been transferring money to a woman named Donna, he couldn’t understand what on earth they meant by it. He was in a relationship with Donna - why should it be any of their business if he had sent her the odd bit of cash?
“When they said well, it’s fraud, she’s not who she says she is, I just had to lean against the wall or else I’d have collapsed,” he says.
Roy, 66, had been taken in by a fraudster, who had built a fake relationship with him online and, over a few months, managed to scam him out of £100,000. He should now be enjoying a comfortable retirement. Instead, he is paying off creditors, using his pension. What hurts most, he says isn’t the humiliation of having been duped, it’s the way his loneliness was abused so cruelly. “I thought we were in love. I thought we were going to get married. I had no suspicion whatsoever. The money seemed to be for plausible things,” he says. “You reckon drink and drugs are big killers, but loneliness is a bigger killer than any of them, and trying not to be lonely is what I do every day.”
It’s a devastating portrayal of an epidemic of isolation in this country. But while Roy, whose story features on tonight’s Panorama, is one of millions of Brits looking for love online, he’s also one of the thousands who have fallen prey to ‘romance fraud’.
The financial losses can be huge; the emotional devastation even greater. And as increasing numbers of us turn to apps and dating sites, the instances are growing. Action Fraud, the national fraud and cyber crime centre, now receives up to 10 reports of romance fraud a day. This is organised international crime at the highest level, played out over email between a vulnerable person on one side of the world and a cold-hearted criminal on the other. The victims — mostly women between their mid 40s and 60s — can lose staggering sums of money (up to £5,000 in over a third of cases), with little hope of seeing it again.
It’s something most people think could never happen to them. And yet, the victims are no fools. Detective Chief Inspector Gary Miles, of the Metropolitan Police’s Falcon unit, which deals with fraud and cybercrime, says the techniques skilled scammers use are enough to con even the most educated. “People are too quick to judge the victims,” he says. “These fraudsters are very good at recognising opportunities. It’s geared around the fact that people want to be in relationships; people want to be in love.”
Identifying potential victims is the result of an elaborate set of questions, designed to elicit key financial information. In some cases, the victims may even be talking to more than one person. “These fraudsters will show a lot of interest, pay them compliments and focus on getting certain details out of them,” DCI Miles explains.
In a typical scam, the fraudster will use a dating site, messaging 20-30 people and watching to see who takes the bait. They then tailor their ‘personality’ to fit the victim’s criteria. If a woman is seeking someone strong and dependable, they’ll find a picture of a soldier and steal their identity. Military covers are a common choice, as it’s an easy way to explain why the pair cannot meet. One woman in her 60s, from west London, paid around £260,000 over six months after she was contacted by “General Krulak”. She used her life savings, pawned jewellery, sold her car and took out loans, which were transferred into accounts in Ghana.
After deciding a person is worth pursuing, Miles says, the fraudster will move the conversation off the dating site and onto text or email, so they aren’t easily traceable. It’s an attempt to isolate the victim and to make them feel more connected to this exciting new love interest.
Val McKey lost £8,500 to a man she thought was a British Army major. “It was absolutely blissful,” she recalls of their connecting online.
Val started giving him small amounts of money. But, a few weeks into the relationship, she saw a warning from a woman who had been scammed by a fake soldier and reality came crashing down. “It was the same name and the same picture. How could I have been so stupid? The whole thing has been a con,” she says. “I told no one about the money because I was so ashamed.”
Once the scammer knows they’ve hooked a victim, they begin messaging constantly. They’ll say they’re working abroad, but want to meet soon. Then comes the first request for cash. Action Fraud estimate it usually takes perpetrators less than 30 days to ask for money - small amounts at first. Then, suddenly, they need a big injection. “There’s always a child in hospital or the need to get out of their country, because there’s a coup,” says Miles.
Sixty-year-old retiree Brenda Parke was scammed out of £60,000 in 2010 after striking up a relationship with a man claiming to be a Dutch businessman called Bradford Cole. After weeks of emailing and speaking over the phone, he claimed that while travelling with his daughter she had been injured in a hit and run and he needed £9,600 for an operation. He didn’t ask Brenda for the money directly, but claimed he had borrowed too much from the bank and had no-one to turn to, subtly manipulating her. Before long, the stories had become more and more elaborate, and Brenda was handing over huge sums to a man she had never met.
“I’m fully aware of how utterly stupid I have been,” she has said of her case, which she eventually reported to the police when Cole failed to return her money. “Having previously considered myself to be a bright and intelligent woman, who has successfully created a secure financial environment for my retirement, I believe that if I could be manipulated and reduced to ‘a puppet on a string’ because of this man’s subtlety and supposed sincerity, then there are millions of vulnerable people out there just waiting to be abused.
“It is so cunning and amazingly well done. I am left reeling with shock at my own vulnerability.”
Wayne May, who runs Scam Survivors - which “scams the scammers”, creating fake profiles to lure them in - says romance fraud is becoming more common, as people increasingly head online to combat loneliness and “it’s only getting worse.”
DCI Miles agrees: “It can affect anyone,” he says. “I’ve known victims of all ages and both sexes. I’ve had to send officers to far flung parts of the country to convince people that they are being defrauded.”
Putting a stop to it, he adds, can be difficult. There is so much stigma that many victims don’t report it. Even when they do, the money is hard to trace. Vast amounts of cash may have gone through numerous UK or US bank accounts, but then end up in West Africa.
May says one common technique among scammers is to “come clean” when they’re about to be found out. “They admit they’re scamming but then they say ‘I’ve genuinely fallen in love with you, here’s what I really look like, will you still love me?’” And if you’ve been hooked once, he warns, it’s likely you’ll be targeted again.
Not long after he had lost £100,000, Roy Twiggs was contacted online by a woman named Sherry. They struck up a rapport, and she soon began asking for money. It took a <Panorama> reporter to convince him that he was being duped again. “I just want someone to be with and talk to,” he says quietly, as the realisation begins to dawn. “I’m not a brilliant catch. And that’s all there is to it.”
Panorama: Billion-Pound Romance Scam is on BBC One on Monday November 19 at 8.30pm