It’s a complicated philosophical quirk of our legal system that the police don’t seem to be able to actually prevent a crime, but instead come in after something bad has happened. Think of the endless news stories where someone has reported a stalker multiple times, been ignored and then eventually murdered because the police failed to act. The argument is that you can’t arrest someone for something they haven’t done, which is fair, but it’s unbelievably frustrating to realise that a crime could have been stopped if the police had acted when the red flags were waving frantically.
Therefore, it’s nice to see the police put some effort into crime prevention – even if it comes at the cost of £8.7 million in March 2021 alone. The City of London Police have released information to try and prevent online romance fraud and protect potential victims from romance fraud and relationship fraud. The romance fraud schemes have been increasing year on year, and victims targeted between December and February (or Christmas and Valentine’s Day) are the most susceptible to losing the largest amounts of money.
The advice offered by the City of London Police directly appeals to the family members of potential victims, so really they’re not protecting anyone, they’re just providing information and letting other people stage the interventions – and any potential victims without families, and presumably those most at risk, will presumably have to fend for themselves, or be scammed out of large amounts of money.
The case study offered by the City of London Police is, presumably, a real one, but it’s so generic that it doesn’t really offer any insight. An elderly man met someone online, who claimed to live in the USA, and he sent her £1000 to come and visit him. His daughter, and the story’s hero, contacted the bank, cancelled the transaction and the money was returned, but the daughter assured the police that the whole scam had been extremely stressful and unpleasant. Doubtless, this was a horrible experience, but almost identical situations have been occurring for years – if you don’t believe me, watch an episode of Catfish and then look at how many series they’ve made.
So what, specifically, is the advice to protect against online romance fraud?
- Make sure that all social media and online profiles are set to ‘private’ so that potential scammers don’t have access to background information that could be used to forge a connection. For example, workplaces and hometowns are bits of trivial information that one might not care about concealing, but can be used by a scammer to manipulate a victim into thinking they have shared experiences or values. This is a very common romance scammer tactic.
- Monitor the behaviour of any loved ones who are online dating and look out for sudden changes. This is a difficult one, because there could be any number of reasons someone’s feelings and attitudes shift and it might have nothing to do with a new romantic partner or, more darkly, a scammer on a dating site.
- Make anyone who is using online dating sites aware of the possible risks. Whilst this is an important conversation to have, it must be done with tact. Imagine, for example, a widow/widower trying to use a dating app, becoming an online dater and immediately being told by their child that someone is just trying to steal their money. It could cause a fight, lower self-esteem and drive a wedge into the relationship which, ironically, could actually help a scammer take advantage of the emotionally vulnerable.
- Tell anyone who is online dating that they shouldn’t transfer any money to someone they’ve matched with. Again, good luck making sure that this doesn’t sound patronising.
- Get in touch with the Action Fraud helpline. The City of London Police seems keen to assure everyone that this is not something to be embarrassed by, and perhaps working to remove the stigma is the most important thing anyone can do because being scammed isn’t shameful, and reporting crimes quickly can mean that the perpetrators are more likely to receive justice and further scams are prevented.
None of this is fun, fluffy dating advice. It’s a deeply serious subject that hurts and affects many people, and there’s evidence to suggest that it’s becoming more common, so it’s a conversation we need to have, and in six months, we’ll need to do it again. The police are trying to do something, but ultimately, you might be the best person to protect your loved ones – not by becoming a vigilante, but by having honest and difficult conversations if you think someone is at risk of being scammed.