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Sunday, May 29, 2022

Romance scam victim turned vigilante reveals how she turns tables on con artists

A romance scam victim has turned the tables on scummy lotharios by exposing them online.

The older Teessider, who wished to remain anonymous, lost a “significant sum” to a fraudster she’d met in a long-term con while looking for love. Fortunately, Cleveland Police, the Victim Care and Advice Services (VCAS) and months of efforts chasing banks saw her claw the money back.

And now she has turned vigilante – stringing scammers along and reporting them when she spots them on dating apps and websites. Statistics from the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau (NFIB) showed a big rise in romance fraud cases reported between November 2020 and October last year – with a staggering £14.6m lost by victims in one month.

Teessiders have also suffered – with one victim losing more than £10,000 to a scammer from Nigeria while another tragic case saw a vulnerable Stockton resident believe they were speaking to ageing film star Sylvester Stallone.

Teessider “Jane” was strung along for a long time by a would-be suitor who worked to gain her trust.

She told the Local Democracy Reporting Service how it was sickening when the penny dropped.

But she hasn’t let the experience get on top of her – and now she has warned those looking for a partner of warning signs and red flags to spot online.

Jane said: “I just wish I could sit with some of the women or even men and tell them: ‘This is a scammer’.

“I went through it in my head – why would you even think this person is interested in you? It’s shocking because it’s to do with your ego.”

A long road back

Jane was slowly hooked in over time by a sophisticated con-artist and lost a “significant sum” at his hands.

Through the efforts of VCAS, Cleveland Police and battles with banks, Jane got her money back – and also got a second sum months down the line with the help of the financial ombudsman.

She heaped praise on VCAS care officer Lottie Dixon for her efforts – and hailed Cleveland Police’s response as “fantastic” in her case.

Unfortunately, the pandemic meant the London-based perpetrator couldn’t be apprehended by officers – and as far as Jane is aware, the conman who duped her is still at large.

Bank security has also improved since she lost her money after a less than smooth time recovering her cash – and a long battle with a well-known high street chain saw her claw back more cash via the ombudsman in 2021.

Jane added: “It’s a long lengthy process. Don’t think if you’re scammed and you get money taken, that there’s an easy button to push to get it back. It’s not – it’s a real fight. But as I carried on I started to feel more confident and felt I’d get it back.

“I felt the confidence from the police and Lottie.”

Turning the tables

That confidence has seen Jane continue to use online dating – and she now uses her experience to drain the resources of other fraudsters preying on the vulnerable.

She added: “Sometimes I don’t bother talking to them when I recognise them, but other times I click like and start to talk to them.

“Because I’m an older woman, they see you as a target – they think you’re a bit stupid, which is a real advantage.

“Quite often now, the site I use is a lot better. If I click on someone I think is a scammer, within 24 hours usually they’ve taken down his profile.

“I don’t know whether they use me as a measure of what’s going on out there – but I have had conversations with other scammers and I’ve led them along until they asked for money and then exposed them. Sometimes they swear viciously at you – but you just think ‘I know what you were made of when I first spoke to you’.”

Jane has spotted common signs for people to look out for when online from her experiences with the scammers.

Elaborate stories, inconsistencies, and urgency for cash are often themes.

She added: “They’re often very predictable. They’ll say they work offshore or have their own business. They often use the cover of being in a construction business.

“Something happens when they’re abroad – or something happens with the government in that country, and they need money to get their machinery going again.

“You wouldn’t believe the involvement of some of the stories. One guy I led along for ages because the police would have no more to do with him.

“I knew I wasn’t going to give him a penny. I got other bank account numbers from him – and I kept dribbling on saying I’m not sending it for various reasons.

“Eventually, I got four different bank account numbers from him which I passed on to the police. One was in Dubai and connected to other criminal activity.”

Reverse image searches – where file photos of people online can be tracked – are often handy to spot fakes online.

But Jane said some scammers got around that – and had used bitcoin and blockchain as channels to take money off victims.

Draining the time and energy of the fraudsters – so they’re wasting efforts on her, rather than another victim – is something else which motivates Jane.

Arming herself with information was key to feeling less vulnerable, she explained.

She added: “I’m not saying I couldn’t be targeted again, but I have a lot of information which is like a shield. If you were going for a new job, you’d research where you were going first.”

Jane also said she’d picked up some commonalities from fake profiles aimed at older women.

Good looking, American older men in their 60s and 70s – with a “good head or grey hair” and trendy glasses staring out into the middle distance – often aren’t who they appear to be.

“They look as if they’ve been taken out of a glasses catalogue,” she added.

“They’re older men to attract older women – tanned and looking into the distance. Handsome like a model.”

Spotting changes in stories and doing her research has often proved invaluable to Jane.

She even revealed how she’d learned a few lines of Hungarian to trip up one fraudster.

Jane said: “When I said something, he pretended his phone had gone off – and then he texted me back in Hungarian. I knew he had no idea what I’d said to him.”

However, some fakes can be spotted more easily.

Jane added: “One guy said he was in a detention centre in Abu Dhabi airport. I had a friend there – and said I’d get them to come and see him. He said no – so I said I’d get the British Embassy to come and speak to him.

“Then it got even more ridiculous. I spoke to him and he had an accent I didn’t think was artificial – but the photographs he sent were of some American in jail with hands on prison bars – and they’d photoshopped his neck on this figure.

“I Google-searched stock pics of prison – and there was this guy. It was like something out of the Marx brothers.

“They make up these huge stories – I told the guy on the phone he was utterly ridiculous.

“He still was carrying on – they never drop it, and they end up blaming you for not trusting them.”

Facing up to reality and sharing your experiences with family were other tips Jane offered.

“You have to kid yourself,” she added.

“The people doing it ask you to keep it a secret – between you and them. If you share it with your family, it becomes very obvious.

“Don’t think: ‘I’m on a dating site – my love life is private’.

“Don’t do that – share. Share it with your daughter, son, sister, brother or your friends – and they will give you a more objective viewpoint so you can think what you’re doing.

Rounding off, Jane wasn’t overly pleased with Action Fraud – the national centre for reporting tackling fraud and cybercrime – but heaped praise on VCAS for their efforts.

For more advice from the service go here.

Signs of romance scams (Source: Teeswide Adult Safeguarding Board)

  • They are reluctant to video call or meet in person.
  • They ask you a lot of questions about yourself and share little about themselves that can be checked or verified.
  • The discussion is friendly at first, however quickly turns romantic.
  • Scammers often use duplicated profile pictures.
  • Some scammers claim to live in the UK when in fact they reside in another country – tell tales signs can be poor grammar, spelling or grasp of the English language
  • Asking for money for medical care for themselves of an ill relative.
  • Asking for money for travel to the UK to meet you
  • Asking for money to pay their phone bill or rent

Romance scam tips (Source: Teeswide Adult Safeguarding Board)

  • Never ever send or receive money or give out your personal banking details to someone you have met online – even if they promise to repay it or send you gifts in advance.
  • Only use trusted dating sites – and be extra careful if someone asks you to move communication away from the original site or app you first met.
  • Never share or exchange private or sexual photographs or videos, this can be used to blackmail you and if they share these it is a criminal offence, report it to police.
  • Trust your instincts – if something feels wrong it probably is, speak to a family member or friend to seek a second opinion.
  • Choose a username that does not reveal any personal information about yourself
  • Only accept friend requests from people you know on social media – and ensure your accounts are set to private.
  • Don’t let your own bank account be used by someone else to receive or transfer money. This could be money laundering.
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