Rise of the rom-con: Banks try to 'break the spell' for scam victims

The problem of online romance scams is becoming so common that some banks have decided to intervene, as Kelly Foran reports

Sue felt like she was in a real-life rom-com.

It all began when the 56-year-old, who lives near Helensburgh, Scotland, uploaded some photos to a Scottish scenery Facebook page.

Lots of people commented and messaged Sue about how lovely the pictures were.

One of the messages was from 58-year-old Kim William.

Kim was from America. A handsome man, with greying hair and a beard.

He started asking for tips on where to visit in Scotland, and the pair quickly hit it off.

Kim told her all about his grandchildren, his family members, and his work on an oil rig off the Gulf of Mexico.

After a few weeks of talking, he said he had to return to the rig.

Sue felt like she was in a real-life rom-com. Credit: ITV News

They continued chatting multiple times a day - texting, emailing, sending voice notes, and speaking on the phone.

That’s when the first request for money came in.

Kim said he didn’t have his bank card and wanted to access the internet. It was only £50 and Sue didn't mind.

A short time later, his bank account was frozen.

Kim was a wealthy man and ran a successful business. He didn’t need money, so Sue felt okay lending him some until he was off the rig.

But then Sue received a scary voice note from Kim. He was screaming in pain and told her his leg was broken.

'Kim' was a wealthy man and ran a successful business. Credit: ITV News

He passed the phone over to a doctor who described the medical details of Kim's injuries and explained how much it would cost to help him.

By this point, Sue had sent thousands of pounds, but the requests didn’t stop.

Next, he said he’d been arrested because he had drugs planted on him and needed bail.

A tech-savvy friend of Sue's decided to do a Google image search and instantly his pictures showed up to be an American model who goes by the name of Kevin R Davis.

After 16 months of falling for the man of her dreams, it soon became clear that Sue had been swept up in a rom-con.

The messages had looked and sounded like real, emotional conversations. But they were all sent by a scammer.

Kevin, who actually lives in Alabama, told ITV News that he gets at least two messages a month from people who have been scammed by someone using his photos.

"It’s really awful because initially, they think it’s me that’s been scamming them," he said.

"I use social media to promote my work so my pictures are out there, but to hear that people have used them in this way, it makes me so angry and upset.

"And the worst thing is nothing much seems to be done to stop it from happening."

Sue said she still misses 'Kim' every day. Credit: ITV News

But it's not just the financial losses that can have a lasting impact on the victims. The emotional toll can sometimes be far worse.

"The money isn't the problem. It's how I was with him," Sue told me.

"I still miss him every day. The interaction with him and the thought of what could have been."

Another woman - who asked to remain anonymous - spoke to me about a man she met on a dating website.

They spoke multiple times a day and he would send her photographs and videos of his family, while she introduced him to her daughter, via a phone call.

She ended up spending more than £70,000 of her life savings, and pension on a man she thought she loved.

She told me the scam has left her feeling worthless and ashamed. Now she desperately wants action to stop others from suffering the same fate.

After 16 months of falling for the man of her dreams, it soon became clear that Sue had been scammed

According to UK Finance, the latest data shows £16.6 million has been lost to these so-called romance scammers in the last six months.

One of the most well-known scams is of people claiming to be working on an oil rig.

In the last 12 months, Lloyds bank has reported a 30% increase in these kinds of scams, with the average amount lost being around £8,000.

Nationwide has reported an increase of 37%, with an average of £6,000 being taken by scammers.

Meanwhile, Santander, which has reportedly seen an 11% rise in the last year, has launched a specialist team to combat these kinds of scams.

The Break the Spell team, based in Bootle, Liverpool work to ‘interrupt’ customers who have been identified as being at high risk.

This can include monitoring unusual payments and stepping in when the person could be about to send large amounts of cash.

Kevin said he gets at least two messages a month from people who have been scammed by someone using his photos. Credit: ITV News

Often the calls are very lengthy – the average call length is 40 minutes – and it can be extremely difficult to persuade the customer that they are being scammed.

The team is often subject to rude and aggressive language from customers who believe they are being stopped from spending their money as they choose.

In some circumstances of extreme concern, the team will refuse to make the payment and involve the police.

In the short time they’ve been established, Break the Spell has stopped £5.8 million from being taken by scammers.

But the team says the real figure is estimated to be much higher, as many of these customers had other savings that could have been at risk had the fraudster been successful.

Santander's tips for spotting a scam

  • Online friendships are based on profile – so it’s important they check if the person you’re talking to is who they say they are. 

  • You can perform a reverse image search on a web search engine, this can find photos that have been taken from somewhere, or someone, else.

  • Always consider the possibility that the approach may be a scam. Try to remove the emotion from your decision-making no matter how caring or persistent the ‘prospective partner’ is.

  • Never send money to someone you’ve only met online.

  • It’s really important that you’re truthful when talking to your bank about your payments, our questions are there to help protect you.

  • Always think carefully before making a payment. This is especially important if it’s a lot of money for you.

  • Speak to someone you trust first, like a friend or family member.

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