A campaign to tackle online romance fraud has helped to recover £115,000 for victims after a partnership between the National Crime Agency (NCA), City Police and authorities in Ghana.
UK forces are now able to send intelligence referrals to Ghanaian police about suspects based in or linked to the country involved in scamming people on dating sites.
The partnership has so far led to £115,000 being returned to UK victims and two live investigations in Ghana into suspects thought to be defrauding British victims.
It comes as part of a campaign by Action Fraud, launched last month, to raise awareness of romance fraud after reports of the crime increased by 26% in the last year.
Romance fraud, or dating fraud, occurs when people think they have met the perfect partner online but their “date” is using a fake profile to form a relationship.
The scammer gains the victim’s trust over weeks or months but the criminal’s end goal is to get the victim’s money or personal information.
They may come up with a sob story for why they urgently need money, try to steer their chats off the dating website, and be reluctant to meet up in person.
City of London Police, who conduct investigations by Action Fraud, has identified 38 victims of romance fraud who were unaware they were being scammed.
A number of investigations are underway and one case has already led to two arrests.
One victim told the BBC last month that she felt "violated" after she was conned out of £320,000 by a man she met online.
She lost the inheritance from her parents in an online scam by a scammer, who called himself Tim, who she met after losing her husband in 2019.
More than 600 reports of romance scams per month were made to Action Fraud during June, July and August, as dating fraudsters have been exploiting victims’ desire for human contact during the lockdown.
The average victim of romance fraud loses just over £10,000.
Diana Fawcett, chief executive of charity Victim Support, said: "Lockdown restrictions meant people could not meet in person for a number of months, which led to many seeking to form new connections online.
"Whilst using the internet can be a great way to meet people and form relationships, there’s also a great risk of being lured into a romance scam as fraudsters know how to take advantage of people’s desire for human contact.
"Unfortunately, we’ve seen that circumstances caused by coronavirus were in fact used by fraudsters as a ‘hook’ to extort money.
"For example, some have invented lies about needing medical treatment, or urgent travel expenses to leave a country, or funds to keep afloat after a bogus job loss caused by the pandemic."
Commissioner Ian Dyson, from the City of London Police, said: "Romance fraud is an abhorrent crime that causes its victims devastation, both emotionally and financially.
"The importance of raising awareness through campaigns like this, and protecting people from becoming victims in the first place, cannot be underestimated."At the City of London Police, we work tirelessly to bring together partners in law enforcement in the UK and overseas, and financial institutions, to tackle fraud at its root, make arrests, repatriate funds, and protect victims, even when they are unaware that they are being defrauded."
Other investigations have been progressing with "significant activity" in South Wales, Devon and Cornwall, Kent, Thames Valley, North Wales, Hampshire, Lincolnshire, Bedfordshire, GMP, MPS and Surrey.
There have been four arrests including one suspect who was arrested within an hour of identification and returned to prison.
The Irish Garda National Economic Crime Bureau have also made arrests in relation to an organised crime group based in Ireland but with links to Nigeria and Dubai, who were targeting Irish and British victims.
The City of London Police and the Irish Garda continue to co-operate to investigate the fraud.
Many online platforms have a reporting tool which people can use if they suspect someone is a scammer. Reporting their user profile means it can be blocked, which also helps to protect others.