As we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, many people are horrified to discover that their friends and relatives have been victims of romance scams. It’s no coincidence that these scams increased by almost a quarter in 2020 when feelings of loneliness and isolation were at an all-time high. Despite banks implementing payee verification systems and extensive warnings on their user interfaces, these scams are running rampant.
There are things you can do to protect yourself against this potentially life-destroying fraud. Investigator John Eastham sat down to chat about PI UK’s unique approach to tackling romance fraud investigations.
What Is Romance Fraud?
Romance fraud is when someone engages in a false relationship, usually online, with a victim to extract money from them. The ‘relationship’ is typically intense and intimate. The victim will genuinely believe that they are in love with someone who doesn’t really exist. John described a recent online romance scam that he was asked to investigate:
“A woman had struck up an online relationship with someone on an over 50s dating site. Her online boyfriend seemed perfect: he was a handsome, eloquent philanthropist working for a children’s charity. After around six weeks of their relationship, he asked if she would like to take part in a project and encouraged her to send him several thousand pounds. She agreed, but it wasn’t long before he asked for more, and then more again.”
“By the time she approached me, she’d already lost tens of thousands of pounds to this scammer. We found out that the photos they were using were linked to dozens of scams across the world. The FBI were actually already aware that this network was targeting vulnerable older people. We were able to prove to the client beyond doubt that her boyfriend didn’t exist. We put all the information we gathered in a final report for her to give to the fraud team at the bank.”
How Can a Private Investigator Help With Romance Fraud?
If you’ve already lost money, a PI can help you speed up the process of getting it back. By examining the media that the scammer has shared with you, we can find out valuable information that might uncover their true identity. Photos, videos, and phone numbers all contain hidden data that a detective can examine.
“We build up a profile of the scammer,” John explained. “We take all the data that has been shared with the victim and examine it, piece by piece. Usually, we uncover a trail by doing this, including the identity of the people in the photos, the owners of the mobile numbers, and other fake accounts linked to this data. We might find the true identity of the scammer or uncover a scamming network, both of which are useful.”
“Best case scenario, we figure out who the scammer is, and law enforcement recovers the stolen money, but it’s usually a bit more complicated than that. These scammers are quite often based in countries where cybercrime investigations aren’t really prioritised. Even if we find that the money is already gone, all is not lost.”
Stopping Catfish with Evidence
When the stolen money has been laundered or hidden, the scammer or network might already be known to authorities. Evidence that you’ve been one of many victims in an extensive operation can help your case as you seek compensation from the bank.
With romance fraud investigations, prevention is undoubtedly better than cure. A background check is the most comprehensive way to determine whether your online relationship is legit. Ideally, you’d want to do this before parting with any money or divulging personal information, but it’s never too late to run a check.
The Real Signs Of A Romance Scam
Catfish has been on TV for over ten years, and even The Neighbourhood Watch seem to have released leaflets about romance fraud. Everywhere you send money online, you’re asked if you think it could be a scam.
The signs of romance fraud are common knowledge these days. So why is it increasing in prevalence? While he believes that educating the public about common romance scams is important, John thinks the source runs a bit deeper than ignorance.
“We tell people to look out for the signs: using broken English, refusing to video chat, unrealistically attractive profile pictures, asking for money et cetera, but knowing what to look out for regarding a romance scam is less important than you might think.”
Why People Refuse to Believe
“Even if a loved one has approached us on their behalf, we find the victim almost always knows that something isn’t quite right. They’re typically unhappy with the way life is going for them and usually pretty miserable for one reason or another. That doesn’t mean it’s the victim’s fault, but it does mean that these types of scams are particularly resistant to public education campaigns. “
“It’s easy for outsiders to say: ‘that’s obviously a scam.’ I’d say I can typically tell within a few minutes of examining the case. It usually only takes a few days to get hard evidence. Still, it’s not so easy for victims to come to terms with the idea.”
“Think about your most intimate relationships. Without some serious evidence in front of you, you’d probably also have a hard time completely believing, if at all, that your loved one doesn’t even exist. That’s the reality of what we’re dealing with in these investigations.”
Even if they have emerging doubts, it seems that a victim would have felt a genuine connection to this persona for quite some time. The scammers are merciless and will go to any lengths to secure some kind of payment. Suppose the victim decides to raise these doubts with their ‘partner’. In that case, the scammer will often double-down and manipulate them into feeling guilty for doubting their authenticity.
Client-Focused Romance Fraud Investigations
As we’ve seen, understanding the MO of scammers is a vital part of any romance fraud investigation, but it’s ultimately not enough in preventing these scams or delivering justice for the victims. The ‘relationship’ will feel authentic and intimate, so it can be deeply confusing for victims to look at the facts, which point to a scam but don’t necessarily prove it. With this in mind, PI UK has developed a distinctive strategy for investigating romance fraud.
“At the end of the day, we conduct these investigations because we want to help people,” John pointed out. “We’re passionate about understanding our clients. Our investigators are tuned in to what you might be feeling when you approach us for help. That’s why we offer everyone friendly advice, free of charge, whether they decide to pursue an investigation with us or not.”
Stigma Can Be Deadly
“It’s a real shame, but the social stigma around these scams can stop victims from reaching out. It can be embarrassing. I always tell clients that they should never feel like this because it’s not their fault that someone else has chosen to prey on them. Everyone deserves to get help.”
“All too often, clients tell us that other investigators they’ve hired in the past have had a bad case of ‘tunnel vision.’ They fixate on getting evidence without really listening. When you’ve just taken the massive step of asking for help with something as personal as this, I can’t imagine anything worse than feeling overlooked and in-the-dark about your own investigation.”
“Everyone is different, and so are their investigations, which is why we tailor everything to the individual. Some people prefer to be kept in the loop constantly, while others don’t want to hear from us until we’re done. Some people might prefer a female investigator over a male or vice versa. We always ask about these things to make sure we get it right. We’re reachable 24 hours a day, every day. It’s a level of client service you don’t see much in this industry.”
Hope for Catfish Victims
John gave this final message for people who fear they might have been a victim of a romance scam:
“Practically speaking, contact your bank immediately and don’t send any more money to anyone suspicious, even if they insist. Be really careful about the personal information you share. Even if it seems insignificant to you, a scammer could use it against you.”
“Above all else, listen to your gut. Whether it’s your relationship or the relationship of a loved one, if you feel like something is off, you should really get help. We’re always happy to chat. We offer free and impartial advice to everyone.”