Online romance scams have claimed 200,000 victims in the UK, according to estimates from a study conducted by the University of Leicester.
Scammers hide behind fictional dating profiles, using fake, stolen photographs. They then befriend potential victims and ask them to send over lump sums of money, purporting it's for an emergency.
The study, in partnership with the Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA), reveals that one in every 50 adults surveyed knows someone who has personally been victim of this scam.
Are you dating a fraudster?
National fraud advice service Action Fraud reported 592 cases of online romance fraud between 2010 and 2011 and 203 of the victims lost more than £5,000 each. SOCA investigations have seen considerably higher losses of £240,000.
Numbers could be higher still
Professor Monica Whitty, a psychologist and professor at the University of Leicester and co-leader of Action Fraud's research, says the considerably lower figures it cited are down to online romance scams being under-reported: "Our data suggests that the numbers of British victims of this relatively new crime is much higher than reported incidents would suggest."
SOCA's senior manager for fraud prevention Colin Woodcock is encouraged by the number of people that are at least aware of online romance scams – 52% of survey respondents claimed to recognise them – but he warns of the continuing need for vigilence.
"The perpetrators spend long periods of time grooming their victims, working out their vulnerabilities and when the time is right to ask for money.
"It is crucial that nobody sends money to someone they meet online, and haven't got to know well and in person," he says.
Professor Whitty adds that victims of this online fraud experience a "double hit", losing out financially but also personally: "This is a concern not solely because people are losing large sums of money to these criminals but also because of the psychological impact experienced by victims of this crime."
Avoid online romance scams
Follow these five quick rules to ensure you're never victim to these illegal heartbreakers:
1. Look at the photo
Fraudsters often steal photos from models or members of the army. If your potential suitor looks a little too good to be true – or at least their picture is a bit too professional – try to ask some more questions to find out about the person beyond the face.
2. What do they do for a living?
Another tactic employed by criminals using this scam is to claim they often work away from home or don't have a UK base. That way it is easier to excuse the fact that you are never going to meet up. Working in the army or being a jetsetter model incidentally fits the scammer's criteria of a job without one base – and conveniently matches up to the stolen photos.
3. Will they meet up with you face-to-face?
Once you've spent a while communicating online, it's worth arranging to meet your interest in person. If they don't show up or refuse to meet your relationship can't progress, which suggests they may not be genuine.
4. Never send money to someone you haven't met
Quite simply if you've not met someone in person ignore their requests for money. You are almost certainly being targeted by a scammer.
5. Don't go on instinct
It's easy to tell yourself that only you know this person properly and any outsider wouldn't ‘get' your relationship but you're probably letting your emotions overrule your head. It's important to go into online dating with a clear head and show initial caution before getting to know people better.