Just how desperately are you looking for love? Unfortunately, for some the answer is all too often all too desperately; to the point where common sense leaps out of the window and is quickly followed by the bank balance. According to new research by the University of Leicester in the UK, hundreds of thousands of people have already fallen to what is being referred to as the online romance scam.
In what is thought to be the first formal academic study of its kind, researchers at Leicester University have attempted to measure the true scale of online dating danger from the fraud potential perspective. Although it has been difficult to get a true grasp on the scale of this type of scam, not least thanks to the embarrassment problem which often leads to such crimes not being reported to law enforcement agencies, the research did reveal that one in every 50 people questioned claim to know someone personally who has fallen victim to the online dating con artists.
Here's how it works:
1. The scammer creates a fake identity on a dating or social networking site. Photographs of attractive people, often female models and male army officers, are copied from elsewhere online and one will be attached to the fake profiles.
2. An online conversation will be initiated, and at some point further photographs from the 'stolen' portfolio of images are exchanged with the potential victim in order to further entice them into believing that the person they are communicating with is genuine.
3. Once an online relationship has been established, and moved away from the originating site to email, often within a week or so of the initial contact, the scammer will pretend to be in urgent need of financial help and a carefully prepared backstory will be employed to add credibility to the plea for help.
4. If a victim has been persuaded to part with cash once, then the scammer will return to feed upon the prey time and time again until suspicions are aroused and then vanish into the ether never to be heard of again, at least not with that identity.
Just how much can be conned out of the romantically desperate in these circumstances? Well, of 592 victims identified by the National Fraud Authority 'Action Fraud' reporting centre in the UK, some 203 had handed over in excess of £5,000 ($7,650). Further investigations by the Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA) reveal that the sums involved can range from £50 ($76) at the lowest end of the fraud scale, right up to a staggering £240,000 ($369,000) in the worst case it was involved in. Indeed, SOCA even reports that when a victim cannot send money through a lack of available cash themselves, they can be so besotted that the scammers simply switch tactic and persuade them to participate in money laundering operations by accepting payments into their personal bank accounts. "The perpetrators spend long periods of time grooming their victims, working out their vulnerabilities and when the time is right to ask for money" says Colin Woodcock, senior manager for fraud prevention with SOCA, adding "It is crucial that nobody sends money to someone they meet online, and haven't got to know well and in person".
The University of Leicester study itself was headed up by Professor Monica Whitty, Professor of Contemporary Media at the University of Leicester, and Dr Tom Buchanan from the University of Westminster. The online romance scam is of concern not only because of the amount of money being defrauded, but also "because of the psychological impact experienced by victims of this crime" Professor Whitty says, continuing "it is our view that the trauma caused by this scam is worse than any other, because of the double hit experienced by the victims: loss of monies and a romantic relationship".