Video report by ITV News Correspondent Geraint Vincent
Anne sits in the doorway of her elderly mother’s house, and weeps. “He took me for every penny I had,” she says.
“He took all my savings. My pension pot. Everything.”
Anne had been very open and honest on the dating website she joined. She was recently divorced, lonely and looking for love.
She was contacted by somebody who called himself Ben. He said he was a businessman involved in construction projects in West Africa.
‘Ben’ told Anne that he was falling in love with her, and he spoke of marriage.
But over the course of several months, he also persuaded her to send him tens of thousands of pounds, to help him overcome various problems with his ‘business’.
“I just wanted to be happy, and to know that somebody loved me,” Anne told me.
“I felt close to him and I wanted to help him. But I was trapped like a spider in his web.”
Anne had to sell her home to cover the cost of a loan she’d taken out to send money to the fraudster.
The deception has left her devastated.
Reports of romance fraud have risen by 26 percent from last year. Victims’ losses in the year to 2020 amount to more than 66 million pounds.
Police say that periods of lockdown provide perfect conditions for the fraudsters.
Victims are feeling particularly lonely and isolated from friends and family, while travel restrictions mean that fraudsters have the perfect excuse for not ever being able to come and meet their targets.
Victims are often left feeling stupid and embarrassed, but they are people who have been taken in by an extremely sophisticated and well organised criminal operation.
Ruth Grover runs a Facebook page - ‘ScamHaters United’ - where she seeks to expose the romance fraudsters and support their victims.
On her personal Facebook profile, Ruth describes herself as ‘widowed’ - this makes her a target for scammers seeking lonely individuals who they think might be vulnerable to their con.
In recent weeks she has been contacted by someone calling themselves ‘Ismael’. He has declared his love for her, and also asked for 2,000 dollars to help with his business.
Ismael agreed to talk to me, and to discuss the nature of his relationship with Ruth. He insists he genuinely loves her and that she is his fiancée.
I have no proof that Ismael’s intentions are anything but honourable, but Ruth has no plans to send him any money, or indeed to marry him.
Watch the moment Geraint Vincent asks Ismael about his relationship with Ruth
“Romance fraudsters will use language that exploits and persuades in a way that is similar to domestic abuse, grooming and coercive control,” says Dr Elisabeth Carter, criminologist at the University of Roehampton.
Over a long period of time, the fraudsters distort their victims’ realities to the point where it is very hard for them to recognise the wrongdoing for what it is.
It is an extremely difficult crime to investigate.
The criminal networks stretch across borders and money obtained fraudulently moves quickly from one account to another, making it hard to trace.
The police say they are working with foreign governments to identify suspects, and they have managed to repatriate some of the money they stole this year.
But for the moment, so many of these cruel con-tricks are going unpunished, and resourceful, ruthless criminal organisations are reaping the rewards.