According to the University of Leicester research, one in every 50 online adults know someone personally who was scammed, and in Britain alone, over 200,000 people may have fallen victim to such online dating frauds. "Our data confirms law enforcement suspicions that this is an under-reported crime," says the study's author, Professor Monica Whitty.
"The trauma caused by this scam is worse than any other, because of the 'double hit' experienced by the victims -- loss of monies and a 'romantic relationship'," adds Whitty. "It may well be that the shame and upset experienced by the victims deters them from reporting the crime."
Action Fraud, the reporting and advice centre run by the National Fraud Authority, identified 592 victims of the scams between 2010-11. Of these, 203 lost sums of more than £5,000. And investigations by SOCA, the national police unit of Serious Organised Crime Agency, have seen financial losses experienced by victims of online romance scams of between £50 and £240,000.
It's not just the 'lonely hearts' of dating websites who are at risk of being exploited. With the ubiquity of Facebook and Twitter, social networking sites are becoming a magnet for these fraudsters on the prowl for their next victim. Here's what you need to know about these dating scams and how to spot one.
The modus operandiIn these so-called online romance scams, fraudsters set up fake identities at online dating sites and social networking sites, using stolen photographs of attractive individuals (often of models or army officers). They make contact with potential victims and go on to develop an intimate online relationship. Then at some point during the relationship they pretend to be in urgent need of money and ask for help. Many victims have been duped out of their savings before their suspicions are aroused.
These romance swindlers are members of organized crime syndicates, and they're professional criminals who know exactly how to work their scam: "The perpetrators spend long periods of time grooming their victims, working out their vulnerabilities and when the time is right to ask for money," warns Colin Woodcock, SOCA's senior manager for fraud prevention.
After making initial contact with the victim through online dating sites and social networking sites, these scammers will try to move the 'relationship' away from monitored online space to private emails and messengers to carry out the fraud.
In some cases, victims are also unwittingly involved in money laundering when scammers ask them to accept money into their bank accounts.
So how do you protect yourself from being exploited? "It is crucial that nobody sends money to someone they meet online, and haven't got to know well and in person," says Woodcock. It's also important to recognize the red flags to avoid becoming the next victim: