Valentineâ€™s Day is a chance to throw caution to the wind and let your heart rule over your head. But donâ€™t get carried away with all the roses, chocolate and soppy poems â€“ especially if youâ€™re looking for love online. Valentineâ€™s may be a day for the romantics â€“ but itâ€™s also one for the scammers. Research has shown a spike in the reporting of romance fraud around March and April as victims wake up to the fact that theyâ€™ve been duped.
Romance fraud: Donâ€™t let your heart be broken by fraudsters this Valentineâ€™s Day
Weâ€™ve invited one victim, known as Firefly to protect her identity, to talk about how she was fooled into handing over â‚¬1,000 to a scammer. She now works voluntarily with Scam Survivors to give support to fellow victims and raise awareness of the issue which affects millions of people across the globe.
She said: Itâ€™s not just about losing money. When I discovered Iâ€™d been scammed I felt like Iâ€™d lost everything â€“ I lost my faith in people, I became nothing but a shell.
I was targeted through a dating site in 2011. He seemed decent and polite so we started emailing each other.
He asked me about what my interests were, what books I was reading. I assumed he was just interested in me but now I know thatâ€™s a tactic of scammers â€“ they â€˜researchâ€™ you.
Many victims find themselves filling out a sort of questionnaire â€“ they tell their scammer their name, birthday, where they live, what type of partner theyâ€™re looking for, what they think is an important character trait, even how they react when theyâ€™re upset. Itâ€™s a form of social profiling.
The scammer will then use to that find a niche to fit into their victimâ€™s life.
My scammer asked me about my work days, when he would be able to speak to me. They take over â€“ spending as much time talking to you as possible. Itâ€™s like being brainwashed.
The scammer will call at all times of the day â€“ even in the middle of the night. They want your complete attention and they want complete control; that can mean cutting out friends and family, every social aspect of your life. In some cases the victims are so involved they stop sleeping and eating.
In my case I didnâ€™t have any family or friends around me to warn me that there was a problem â€“ I didnâ€™t tell anyone. I was alone and easy to target.
My scammer got me to use my webcam so he could see me â€“ but he told me his wasnâ€™t working. Weâ€™re now finding that some scammers are so advanced they can fix webcams to project an image of someone talking that isnâ€™t them.
After getting me on the webcam he tried to get me to do sexual things on camera but, thankfully, I was lucky enough to be too old-fashioned for that. I later found out that scammers use this kind of footage and pictures as a form of blackmail, also known as â€˜sextortionâ€™, if theyâ€™re ever disobeyed.
Sextortion is a huge problem and bigger than we know because many victims are just too ashamed to speak up about it.
On the Scam Survivors website we have a sextortion form people can sign into so we can get as much information as possible on the scammers.
When the website began four years ago 100 forms were completed in one year â€“ in this past year, that number is expected to reach 6,000.
Romance Fraud: donâ€™t fall for it!
I was in a relationship with my scammer for three months â€“ in that time he referred to me as his wife. This is quite common; the victim will be called a â€˜husbandâ€™ or â€˜wifeâ€™ â€“ if theyâ€™ve got children, the scammer refers to them as â€˜our childrenâ€™
My scammer pretended to have a son; this is also quite common. Many create a secondary character, using voice changers to disguise themselves on the phone.
I was convinced the child was real, I spoke to him on the phone. Over a period of three months I sent just over â‚¬1,000 to him for birthdays and to cover medical costs when he had apparently injured himself at school. Now I know this was all lies.
I started to get suspicious when the demand for money increased â€“ I was asked to transfer Â£30,000 because the â€˜sonâ€™ had cholera and needed treatment.
I said no but he kept pushing. After that he tried different tactics â€“ coming up with lies about giving him money to help free up some inheritance and things like that.
One day I decided to do some investigating so I cut and pasted the first email I had received from my scammer and put it into Google. It turned up all over the internet with warnings about scams.
I was shocked â€“ a message I had thought was personal, just for me, had been used on countless other victims.
Romance fraudsters target their victims online
The first instinct was to blame myself and after that I began doubting my own judgement. I believed I was a smart person, I never imagined I would be fooled like this. I was so ashamed that I had been played like a dice. It really destroyed my confidence.
I turned to the internet for help and thatâ€™s how I found Scam Survivors and its founder, Wayne May. Through the site I started talking to more victims like me. It really helped to find out I wasnâ€™t alone and that this can happen to anyone.
I began working with Wayne to support fellow victims and, together with a team of two others, we now work to hunt out scammers on the web â€“ finding as much information about them as possible and posting warnings on Scam Survivors.
It helped me to find clarity. I realised it wasnâ€™t my fault, but it was my responsibility for letting it happen. I learnt to live with that and move on â€“ but it will leave a scar that will be there forever.
Today Iâ€™ve cut all ties with the scammer, but that hasnâ€™t stopped him from trying to target me again by pretending to be someone else â€“ thatâ€™s what they do.
Victims need to change social media accounts, emails, phone numbers â€“ everything that the scammer has in order not to be targeted anymore.
If you donâ€™t, youâ€™ll always be a victim because that scammer will sell all your details to someone else â€“ youâ€™ll be put on a â€˜suckers listâ€™ and others will target you.
Iâ€™ve since learned that some scammers will even try â€˜recovery scamsâ€™ on those victims that have discovered the truth after losing money. The scammer will pretend to be a police office or lawyer and say they can recover all of your money and put the culprit in jail but they need some money to do it and sometimes it works because the victim is at rock bottom, theyâ€™re desperate.
I donâ€™t use my old email address anymore but I still monitor it now and then and, five years later, Iâ€™m still getting emails.
Â IF YOU HAVE BEEN A VICTIM OR WOULD LIKE MORE INFORMATION ABOUT SCAMS, VISIT SCAM SURVIVORS
Wayne May, founder of Scam Survivors, said: â€œWe offer support and advice, we also act to gather information and research current scams in a bid to raise as much awareness as possible.
â€œThe site gets 8,000 visits a day from people from across the world â€“ itâ€™s a widespread problem.
â€œThere are just four of us working on the site on a voluntary basis; unfortunately we canâ€™t stop everyone becoming a victim but we can offer support and we will continue to educate in the hope that we can make a difference.â€