A new internet scam is wrecking your chance of love online; Kieran Watkins looks more into the problems facing online dating sites (article written for The University of Kent Centre for Journalism)
Depressed, lonely and empty; just some of the feelings many single people will be feeling this Valentines. As we cry into our pillows, devour our way through the chocolate aisle of Asda and contemplate reaching for a kitchen knife, one simple solution to our desolate lifestyles is just a few clicks away.
Yes, internet dating. In the last ten years the virtual Blind Date has become so popular that it is believed to generate up to £2billion to the global economy. With one in five relationships being formed online, sites such as match.com and eharmony.co.uk have proved popular for single Brits as we search for the perfect guy or girl to fall in love with.
But behind your loved-up computer screen lies a growing international problem, one which threatens to ruin any romance you thought you might have, and take your money and possessions with it.
The rise of online scammers on internet dating sites has sparked fresh concerns about the dangers of using internet chat rooms online, as more people become victims to online scammers.
“I’ve lost everything”, says Amy Champion, 33, from Winchester, Hampshire. She lost all her money when she was targeted by a scammer through a dating site.
“He, if it was ever a he, posed as a businessman living in London. His photo was of a dark, handsome man in a suit. I guess you could say it was love at first sight.
“We hit it off instantly, and chatted all the time. We messaged privately and on Facebook, he never gave me his number.
“After a few weeks, we arranged to meet up, but he said he had no money at the moment because he had just invested in a new business.
“Despite only knowing him for a short while, I felt like I could trust him, so sent my bank details over to him so that he could book a train ticket to visit me.”
For Amy, it was the last time she heard from Michael, 42, who described himself as ‘a relaxed, funny guy looking to start a relationship.’ But although Amy failed to hear from Mark, he left a lasting memory that will haunt her life forever.
“He took my bank details and transferred all my money over to his account. Everything was gone. I went from being madly in love to broken-hearted and penniless.”
Amy’s story is not uncommon. Research by Leicester University in 2012 estimated that 230,000 Britons had been targeted by conmen, who target vulnerable adults in to giving them their bank details.
The conmen are usually based overseas, and start by targeting their victim by posing as an innocent single man or woman, usually using an alias formed around a picture of somebody else and taken from a social-networking site.
They then start talking to victims, usually through private messaging services, forming a relationship with the online dater over several weeks before flying over to meet the loved one. At this point, they then make up a story about being denied a visa, requesting that money and the person’s bank details be sent over so they can finally meet.
But you never do meet each other. In fact, whilst you queue up at arrivals in Heathrow, the potential love of your life is splashing your cash at your expense.
And it’s an expensive game. More than £37 billion is estimated to have been stolen by online scammers in the UK alone, and with police unable to prevent or track down the scammers, the problem is one which is deteriorating rapidly.
“Scammers come in droves, and they’re very aggressive”, explains internet consultant Mark Brooks, from Online Personals Watch.
“I would strongly advise talking to someone on the phone before meeting them.”
One woman, who wishes to remain anonymous, lost £50,000 to £60,000 after sending her personal bank details to her lover, whom she had been in contact with for more than a year.
But despite losing the money, she says that she “forgives him” for what he has done.
“I’ve formed a relationship with him, even if it is online. I love him and I can’t wait to finally meet him one day.”
In the majority of cases, police and the dating websites are unable to locate the villains behind the crime, meaning many of the victims are without justice as well as no money.
Despite the concerns, the Office of National Statistics has recently added online dating to its basket of goods and services to calculate UK inflation rates.
But some councils in England remain unconvinced about the benefits of online dating, and have taken it on themselves to warn the public about being misled online.
Medway Council has launched a new campaign to coincide with Valentines’ Day, to help raise awareness about the growing problem with online scammers.
The council’s Trading Standards team have provided a set of guidelines for members of the public to read and follow when setting up their own profiles online, which include warnings to never give out personal details and be suspicious of a request for financial help.
Councillor Mike O’Brien, Medway Council’s Portfolio Holder for Community Safety and Customer Contact said: “Locally we have probably a minimum of a dozen reports a year from people who have been conned via dating agencies.
“These range from bogus dating agencies who promise ‘matches’ and then disappear without any introductions with the memberships fees to the extreme detailed in the press release of people handing over thousands of pounds to bogus people who they believe they are in love with.
“It really is pernicious and as usual exploits people at their weakest point, in this case emotionally.”
So as you mop up your tears and watch yet another Richard Curtis film this Valentines, think to yourself; maybe it is better to be single, because signing yourself up to an online dating site could ruin your life forever.
Medway Council’s Trading Standards teams’ six steps to staying safe:
- Only use well-known, reputable online dating agencies
- Always be sceptical and if you are asked for any type of financial help be extremely suspicious
- Be careful when going on a date and always try and meet someone who lives locally
- Never give out any personal details
- Be extra careful of anyone using PO Box addresses or telephone numbers that are never answered
- If your online date only ever talks about themselves and never actually answers your questions it could be because they are only sending a standard email to hundreds of other people