A West Sussex woman has spoken out after an online befriending scam saw her lose £108,000 in a matter of months. The 74-year-old, who wishes to remain anonymous, has shared her experience in a bid to warn others of the danger of so-called ‘romance fraud’.
The woman, who had been recently widowed, was approached on Facebook in December 2016 by someone claiming to have been a childhood friend; as their online relationship deepened and they messaged for several hours a day, he began to ask for cash supposedly to help him release money owed to him through his work in the oil industry.
“I felt that he was a friend and that he needed help,” said the woman, who even re-mortgaged her house in a bid to satisfy the fraudster’s demands. “I have never had any problems with money, not that money has been easy but I have always paid my way. I thought it was a friend and that I was helping him. I had never heard of online scams like this – I had heard about letters through the letterbox or through telephone calls but it never occurred to me that he would be a fraudster, it was somebody I thought I knew. I never asked questions; it didn’t enter my head. I am an upfront person and I feel that everybody else should be.”
The fraud was uncovered when Halifax staff alerted Sussex Police thanks to the new Banking Protocol, introduced in Sussex in June, which sees bank staff trained to spot signs that a customer may be withdrawing cash to give to a scammer.
“Now, when I think about it, it was like a drug addiction – even at the stage when the police and my family got involved, I was still trying to prove that they were wrong and I was right,” she explains. “I have been stupid enough to think that I was helping somebody that needed help. Losing that money means that I won’t be able to do the things that I would normally do for my children or my grandchildren but I have to live with my mistake.”
Since March, she has been given assistance by Lisa Mills, one of the case workers funded by Sussex Police & Crime Commissioner Katy Bourne through Victim Support. Along with the woman’s family and officers from Sussex Police, Lisa has helped her to contact her creditors to take control of her finances and also to seek help through Citizens’ Advice.
“If it hadn’t been for Lisa, I would still be worrying and wondering what to do,” she adds. “She has given me the confidence to do things like get on the phone to the credit card companies.”
In December, Sussex PCC Katy Bourne funded two case workers through Victim Support to work with vulnerable victims who have been systematically targeted by criminals. The pair, who cover the whole county, follow up on referrals from Operation Signature, Sussex Police’s pioneering protocol to identify and support vulnerable victims of fraud. In their first six months, the two case workers worked on 244 cases and spent 208 hours face-to-face with victims, freeing up time that would otherwise have been spent by officers or PCSOs.
Working closely with local partners, they also made 527 calls to victims and set up almost 290 practical solutions from having call blockers installed to changing bank cards or providing literature on fraud. They have also offered information on clubs or courses to involve victims into their local community and tackle loneliness.
“I’m very proud that the case workers have achieved so much – as we can see from this woman’s story, they offer invaluable emotional support as well as practical advice to some of our most vulnerable residents,” says Mrs Bourne. “It is encouraging to see responsible financial institutions collaborating with police and other agencies to keep customers safe, although the constantly adapting nature of cyber-fraud means we need to consistently raise awareness – particularly with older people. It’s particularly heartening that of the 244 clients the case workers supported between January and June this year, only 15 have been referred back to them. This really does show the valuable work they are doing to enable people to better protect themselves from future victimisation.”
Bernadette Lawrie, Financial Abuse Safeguarding Officer at Sussex Police, confirmed that romance fraud is on the rise – though victims tend not to report it as frequently as they are often still embroiled with the scammer. Instead, the force is often notified by companies like Moneygram or Western Union when large sums of money being transferred.
“Romance fraud typically involves the fraudster contacting someone on a dating site and gaining their trust. They tell their victim they need money for a family emergency, flights over to see them, or various other pretexts,” she says. “In the 12 months to September this year we received 90 such reports. 13 people lost more than £50,000 and 41 lost more than £10,000.”
In the Sussex Police area, all fraud should be reported to Action Fraud by calling 0300 123 2040 or by visiting www.actionfraud.police.uk
However, if the victim is vulnerable or elderly, please contact Sussex Police directly by calling 101 or emailing email@example.com.