Warning as online 'romance frauds' claim victims' life savings
CONMEN posing as potential online sweethearts are conning unsuspecting victims out of their life savings.
Also dubbed "romance fraud", the complex and detailed scam sees victims tricked into believing they are corresponding with a potential partner, who is in need of financial help.
The elaborate stories vary, but in recent years many have centred around US Serviceman in Afghanistan or Iraq, who are divorced or widowed with grown up children in the USA.
Victims are usually women, often divorced, widowed and living alone – although men have also been targeted.
Business Cards From Only £10.95 Delivered www.myprint-247.co.ukView details
Our heavyweight cards have FREE UV silk coating, FREE next day delivery & VAT included. Choose from 1000's of pre-designed templates or upload your own artwork. Orders dispatched within 24hrs.
Terms: Visit our site for more products: Business Cards, Compliment Slips, Letterheads, Leaflets, Postcards, Posters & much more. All items are free next day delivery. www.myprint-247.co.uk
Contact: 01858 468192
Valid until: Sunday, May 26 2013
Detective Sergeant Mark Newnham, of Plymouth police's Financial Investigation Unit, said a recent study estimated around £3.5billion was being conned out of British people each year.
"It is a colossal amount," he said. "It is not just women. We have a case of a man in south Devon who was conned out of hundreds of thousands.
"In Plymouth we have had cases of women who have lost up to £70,000."
As a result of its own investigations his team examined 53 people they suspected were being tricked.
He said: "We went and visited 24 – 22 of them were victims of fraud and all had been handing over money. One woman had lost £3,000, which was her entire life savings.
"The victims were a good cross section of society. Some have got money and lost a lot, some have very little money and have lost it all.
"These criminals were bleeding them dry, £5,000 for this, £400 for that."
As a result, Plymouth police linked up with the Serious and Organised Crime Agency, Trading Standards, Victim Support and a qualified psychologist to hold a special conference in the city earlier this week, inviting along a number of those they found to have been victims of mass marketing fraud.
Det Sgt Newnham said: "The psychologist explained the effects of this kind of fraud and how to get out.
"Some are in denial and believe they're going to marry these people. But the psychologist will try and show how they are being exploited and how their vulnerabilities are being used against them.
"This conference is part of a trial scheme with the aim of rolling it out nationally to try and prevent the loss of £3.5bn each year.
"This is perpetrated by organised crime groups, based predominantly in West Africa, outside our jurisdiction.
"The victims are not stupid, but they are, for different reasons, very vulnerable.
"The offenders are very thorough and keep records. One victim thought she was communicating with a US soldier who said he was going to come to Plymouth.
He said he had bought a property in Devonport. The woman went to check and saw that it existed and had curtains closed so she believed the soldier.
It later transpired it was the former home of another victim who had been forced to sell her home after being defrauded by the same set-up.
"They are very organised, they create stories which make them unbelievably believable.
"They even arrange for other victims to unwittingly work on their behalf. They have a script and keep logs."
One of the police's biggest concerns is the number of cases which go unreported.
Det Sgt Newnham said: "An enormous amount of this fraud is never reported to police.
"Many victims feel immense embarrassment or shame at being defrauded.
"This can happen to anybody and has happened to everyone from ex-Navy commanders to those with learning difficulties.
"The offenders target the vulnerable – they look for widows, divorces, people going through difficulties. If there was a tsunami tomorrow they would be targeting people saying they are fundraising.
"Nothing is beyond them."
Report any scam or fraud through Action Fraud on 0300 123 2040, visit their website www.actionfraud.org.uk or the police non-emergency number 101.
CASE HISTORY: Sonia Richards
Sonia Richards was carefully groomed by a man who claimed he was a businessman called Jack Briggs.
She was in Canada, running a failing business, aware her marriage was ending and homesick for her friends and family.
A colleague recommended a social website where she found herself pursued by the “pleasant” Briggs.
Finding herself at a low, his call was a tonic. He claimed he was of English Romanian descent, but in truth he was a Nigerian con man.
The long con began, first with a small request of Canadian dollars just as she was about to travel back to England. They were to meet at Heathrow but he didn’t show and after calling him he said to go to Manchester.
There she was accosted by “six-foot plus black guy” who said Jack had been arrested travelling on business to Germany and £7,000 bail was needed which he would pay back.
She borrowed the money from her mother but the promised repayment never materialised. Worse, when she began to show friends a picture of “Jack” she was told it was actually a picture of American actor Robert Frost.
“It was a scam. My friend told him to leave me alone. I was poorly and depressed, my marriage had failed.”
The trickster “apologised profusely”, claiming he never meant to hurt her and admitted he was actually a Nigerian called Oje Ilaboya. He then asked her for help getting a passport to get to England and £90 for a suit.
Sonia ended all communication shortly afterwards, although she said he repeatedly tried to track her down.
Sonia, who now lives in South East Cornwall, said: “I lost about £20,000. I lost my house. I lost everything.
“Somehow the police found me and asked me to go to this conference. I want others to know that this can happen.
“They target women when they’re vulnerable, at their lowest. They know how to work a person’s feelings.
You’re brainwashed by them. They separate you from your real life. He knew I had problems with my marriage. They know who to go for.
“Don’t do what I did. I was gullible at the time. Now I know – you block, delete, ignore.”