Are you dating a fraudster?
If you're hoping to find true love online this Valentine's Day, beware. The tall, dark, handsome stranger you've fallen for may be a fraudster from west Africa looking for lolly, not love.
And that gorgeous blonde bombshell who caught your eye may not be a woman at all, but a bearded eastern European gangster. When it comes to love online, if your heart rules your head, you could be on the road to financial ruin.
Heart ruling head
Lonely hearts fraud can take many forms. First, there are the bogus websites posing as genuine dating sites that simply want to harvest your personal details and credit card numbers to commit ID fraud. They steal 'members' from Facebook and other social networking sites to make them seem genuine and popular.
Then there are the mass market frauds, targeting large numbers of people with standard photos and scripted responses in the hope of netting lots of small payments.
Finally, there are the longer-term frauds, where the scammer builds up trust with the victim over time in the hope of landing the jackpot.
Beverley Parr, head of external communications for the Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA), says: "We know of one fraudster who took over £700,000 from just five women, and one man who committed suicide after finding out he had been defrauded of £80,000."
Fraudsters will use any means at their disposal to cheat their victims. The internet, with its global reach and accessibility, has been a godsend to them. Add to that the emotional vulnerability associated with online dating - the need to trust people and the human capacity for self-deception - and fraudsters have the perfect tool for crime.
How big a problem is it?
Although the UK loses an estimated £3.5 billion to mass market fraud in general, figures for dating or romance fraud itself are hard to come by.
"One of the problems with fraud of any kind is a reluctance to report it, so estimates are difficult," says Parr.
"And we suspect that romance fraud suffers particularly from under-reporting. More than with any other kind of fraud, the criminals behind it rely on creating an emotional bond, so quite often the victim refuses to believe that the person they have come to trust could be a criminal simply after their money.
"There's also the embarrassment factor. Once a fraud comes to light, people don't want to admit they were taken in. Some won't press charges even when they've lost substantial sums of money."
Flattered to be deceived
Hugh Peterson, 49, runs his own engineering business in Woking, Surrey. Last year he'd just gone through the painful break-up of a long-term relationship.
"I was lonely and online dating seemed like a good idea," he says. So he signed up with free online dating site plentyoffish.com.
"I was contacted by several women and struck up a conversation with a very attractive brunette from Estonia with model good looks. We started emailing back and forth," Hugh says.
"I was very flattered - it was doing my ego a lot of good. I looked forward to chatting with her when I got back from work at the end of the day. She kept saying she wanted to come and see me.
"Then a few months into the relationship, she said she had a family medical emergency and needed money to pay the hospital bills. She was desperate. Could I help?
"Well, like an old fool, I wired her £2,000. She was very grateful, and because she didn't do a runner, I thought everything was just as normal. She said she was still intending to come and visit. It all seemed so convincing," he adds.
"Then there was another emergency and - I'm really embarrassed to admit this - I fell for it again and sent her another £1,500. The emails slowed after that, and then stopped completely. Her profile disappeared from the website. I realised I'd been a gullible idiot but was too embarrassed to report it to the police."
Hugh warns: "Sometimes loneliness takes over and your heart rules your head. It's been an expensive learning curve for me and I'm much more cautious now. I won't go near free dating sites."
Last year Action Fraud (actionfraud.org.uk), the UK's national fraud reporting centre, experienced a four-fold increase in the number of calls to its hotline following earlier publicity about online dating fraud.
And US computer magazine PC World estimates that one in eight online profiles on free dating sites are now posted by fraudsters. Setting up a false profile on free dating websites is quick and easy, and there's almost no vetting - although sites are getting better at spotting stolen copyrighted photos.
There are common features to most 'romance frauds', according to SOCA.
1. Fraudsters will often declare a military connection, for example. It seems women still love a man in uniform. But this also provides a perfect excuse for keeping pictures and personal details sketchy, and for being located abroad and unable to meet in person.
2. When it comes to men, it seems they're suckers for women in the 'caring professions' - such as nurses, teachers or aid workers. Caring is an attractive quality, but these professions again provide an excuse for being abroad and hard to reach.
3. When the request for money comes - as it almost always does - the scenario will usually be urgent and time-critical to put pressure on the victim and make them feel responsible.
Dating sites fight back
Dating sites are only too aware of the threat to their reputations from fraudsters, so reputable sites give lots of advice on how members can protect themselves online. They also build in safeguards to deter opportunists.
Dr Gian Gonzaga is the relationship scientist for eharmony.com, one of the world's largest dating sites, with 33 million registered users over its history (the site was responsible for 5% of all newlyweds in the US in 2008/09).
It launched in the UK two years ago. He says: "Our questionnaire for new members has 300 questions, so it presents a barrier to entry for opportunistic fraudsters. Some of the questions we ask and the way we ask them are designed to spot people who aren't genuine.
"We also have technology that can monitor IP addresses and identify where people are emailing from," he adds. "If the activity is from a known fraud hotspot, we'll investigate."
Michael Lynch, spokesperson for ID fraud expert CPP, warns: "If someone's asking for money or your bank details, the likelihood is they're not sincere.
"Even if you're willing to pay what you think is a small amount, the real prize for the fraudster might be your bank details, home address and other personal data in order to establish an identity. We've even come across a case where a house has been sold without the owner knowing it."
It's true that the path to true love never did run smooth, but if you keep your head and follow the advice below you can stay out of the fraudster's clutches and fall into the arms of your perfect match instead.
Used by the holder to buy goods and services, credit cards also have a monthly or annual spending limit, which may be raised or lowered depending on the creditworthiness of the cardholder. But unlike charge cards, borrowers aren’t forced to pay the balance off in full every month and, as long as they make a stated minimum payment, can carry a balance from one month to the next, generating compound interest. As the issuing company is effectively giving you a short-term loan, most credit cards have variable and relatively high interest rates. Allowing the interest to compound for too long may result in dire financial straits.