More than 200,000 people in the United Kingdom may have fallen victim to online criminals who pose as romantic partners on different Internet dating sites, found a new study by online polling site YouGov.
New research, which appears to be the first to analyze the potential scale of the problem, found that online scams target dating websites or social media, posing as soldiers or models on a regular basis in order to build intimate relationships with naïve victims and ultimately exploit them for money.
Researchers at the Leicester and Westminster Universities in the United Kingdom surveyed more than 2,000 people through an online YouGov poll, using a formula that took into consideration all Internet users in Britain over the age of 18 years old and the total population. After analyzing the results, the team came to the conclusion that over 200,000 Britons have fallen victim to the crime. It was revealed that the crime affects all age groups and impacts men and women in the same way, dispelling a widespread assumption that single women over the age of forty years are the ones who are impacted the most.
According to Monica Whitty, University of Leicester psychology professor and one of the study's principal investigators, that number appears to be just a small fraction of the crime's financial and emotional impact. The experts said that these new findings support a prevailing theory that individuals who have been fleeced by online romances do not report their problems to police due to feelings of shame and heartbreak and that is why it is impossible to tell the actual number of victims involved.
The impostors often begin with creating a profile on one of an online dating websites, where they post a notably attractive photo of another person and a description of someone in a remote, hard-to-contact location, for example, some military base in Afghanistan or, in order to attract male victims, a British or an American nurse at some small foreign hospital. Such criminals have persuaded many naïve individuals to give away large amounts of money before any suspicions have been aroused.
The faked relationships are carefully and smartly cultivated for months or even years – the longest the experts heard of was 5 years – with each criminal carrying a number of parallel relationships. At some point inevitably comes the request for urgent need for money, often to help them out of a difficult situation. SOCA's (UK's Serious Organized Crime Agency) investigations have found that, in general, impostors specify a need for travel money, payments for sick relatives or fees to reclaim confiscated possessions. Even in case when people could not or would not send money, scammers tricked them into laundering money by asking them to accept cash into their bank accounts.
According to SOCA, the frauds generally originate outside the United Kingdom, in West African countries like Nigeria and Ghana, and can involve more than one false identities. Aside from the financial losses – SOCA has tracked individual losses starting from £50 and up to £240,000 – the victims also were left heartbroken after finding out that the person whom they had fallen in love with turned out to be a sophisticated con artist, and often not even of the same gender.
Professor Whitty explained that the psychological impact on the victim could be extremely big and suggested that new methods of reporting the crime were needed. The trauma caused by this scam is worse than any other, because of the "double hit" experienced by the victims. On one hand it is loss of money and, on the other hand, which, for most of people appears to be more shocking and painful, loss of a "romantic relationship."
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