By Sam Casey
A woman from East Yorkshire has told Calendar how she was conned out of almost £1/2million by so-called romance fraudsters as she struggled to come to terms with the death of her husband.
Anne Larkin, from Hornsea, was targeted on social media by criminals thought to be operating as part of an organised gang working overseas.
She's speaking out as a warning to others.
Anne said: "Looking back now, my head is clearer, I can call myself stupid. I wasn't in a good place. They helped me get through a very emotional stage... which I suppose made it easy for them to do what they did."
Anne's husband, Graham, died in November 2019 after a short illness. Following his death, at the age of 55, she received a substantial payout from a death-in-service policy he had because he was still several years from retirement.
When the first coronavirus lockdown was imposed four months later, Anne was left isolated from friends and family.
She says she took to social media as a way of coping.
"It was just somebody to talk to. I wasn't looking for romance - even at the end of it. It was just somebody to talk to."
Two men – one posing as a struggling soldier posted to Yemen and another as an actor involved in charitable work in the United States – started to send her messages.
At first she says they were just "chit chat" but soon the messages became more insidious.
"They wanted a relationship, they wanted to meet up. At the end they wanted to get married, they wanted 100 people at the wedding."
Anne says she wasn't interested in starting a relationship, but was persuaded to send the men money – at first relatively small amounts – to help with supposed personal difficulties and charity work.
But over time her losses spiralled.
"When you're sending money through your bank, if it's an international payment, you can send up to £20,000, but it was always in the thousands," she said.
Anne says it was only when the fraudsters asked her to sell her house that she realised what was happening.
She said: "One side of me says, how could you be so daft? How could you have been so gullible? How could you have fallen for it? But the others side says it was quite easy because you were in a vulnerable position, you weren't thinking right. You don't realise it's being done until your brain starts functioning properly."
Anne's case is extreme, but the statistics show she's not alone:
Anne reported her case to Action Fraud, the national fraud reporting centre. But it is unlikely she'll ever achieve justice because of the methods and the location of the criminals involved.
She is now being supported by Humberside Police's economic crime unit, who say the isolation caused by the pandemic has made more people vulnerable to similar exploitation.
Financial intelligence officer June Ashworth said: "It's probably the most cruel of frauds that I come across. It builds on social isolation and vulnerability and Anne had both of those when they came across her.
"With Covid-19 we're finding many more people in this situation, isolated from friends and family. To be truthful, the fraudsters job is half done for them."
Anne should have had lifelong financial security thanks to the plans Graham put in place. Instead, she's been reduced to applying for benefits and looking for menial jobs.
She is now urging others to be aware of the warning signs – and to look out for friends and family who may be potential targets.
She said: "Don't make it a phone call, don't make it a text message – go and knock on their door."
What is romance fraud?
Romance fraud is described as exploitation by someone who creates a fake identity to target people looking for a relationship, often through an online dating website or app.
Once they gain trust they ask for money or even build up enough personal information to steal their victim's identity.
What are the warning signs?
The suitor asks a lot of personal questions, but is reluctant to reveal much about themselves.
Their online pictures are suspiciously attractive.
They invent a reason to ask for help and often will continue the relationship only if they get money.
For more advice on spotting the signs of romance fraud, protecting yourself and reporting incidents click here