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Gardaí say ‘be careful who you love’ as romance scams are on the increase

August 18th, 2021 7:10 AM

By Kieran O'Mahony

The extent of these scams will never truly be known because many victims are too embarrassed to admit them.

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Romance fraud is on the rise everywhere, especially with the popularity of online dating, and now gardaí are advising the public to be extra vigilant about who they might opt to ‘swipe right’ with

WHAT has been termed as ‘romance fraud’ is on the increase, especially as many of us have left our guard down during the current pandemic.

That is the warning from local gardaí who are advising the West Cork public to be extra vigilant about these scams and never give out personal bank details to third parties without being certain of their intentions.

The warning comes on the back of a recent court case which was heard in Bandon. The court was told that a West Cork man was duped out of almost €2,000 after chatting to a woman who called herself ‘Mary’ on the dating site ‘Plenty of Fish’. ‘Mary’ later disappeared with his money.

The injured party subsequently made a complaint to the gardaí in Bandon and, following an investigation, they traced the bank account details, where the money had been lodged, to another man in Cork city.

It later transpired that this man in the city had also been a victim of ‘romance fraud’ after he had handed over €19,000 to a person also known to him as ‘Mary’.

He had also met ‘Mary’ on plentyoffish.com.

However, this second man then faced complicated money laundering charges after ‘Mary’ used his bank details to dupe money from the West Cork man.

The second man denied any knowledge of his bank account having been being used to launder money.

He told Judge McNulty that he had fallen in love with ‘Mary’ despite never having met her.

However, he was so smitten that he bought her flights to come to visit Ireland. Strangely, he never heard from ‘Mary’ again.

But he did hear from the gardaí and in fact unwittingly found himself facing serious money laundering charges, which were later dismissed.

The case highlighted that romance fraud scams can happen anywhere in the country, but these two only came to light because a victim had bravely come forward to report it to gardaí.

Last year alone, romance fraud scammers conned almost €500,000 from over 30 Irish victims, according to the Banking and Payments Federation of Ireland (BPFI), while the average sum handed over by victims that year was €18,000.

‘With an increase in online dating, fraudsters are not only taking advantage of the rising number of people online, but they are also preying on people’s loneliness, isolation and vulnerability as a result of the restrictions and lockdowns we are experiencing,’ said Niamh Davenport, head of digital and fraud prevention at BPFI.

‘Of those cases identified among our members in 2020, victims of so-called romance scams were scammed out of an average of €18,000 and in some cases this was as high as €50,000,’ she explained. ‘This is a very significant sum of money and underlines the serious nature of these scams and the need for people to be extra vigilant to them.’

Last month, gardaí attached to the Garda National Economic Crime Bureau (GNECB) arrested two people as part of an ongoing investigation into romance fraud.

In the investigation, it transpired that a man based in the east of the country was defrauded of €28,000 on a dating website. That money was then laundered through the accounts of two people based in Tipperary and Dublin.

Last September, gardaí from the same unit arrested three men who were charged and are currently before the courts on operating a sophisticated romance fraud scam.

Det Supt Michael Cryan of the GNECB said at the time that this was a ‘novel investigation’ as the senders of such emails had never been arrested in Ireland before.

‘The belief would always have been that criminal groups engaged in this activity are operating from outside this jurisdiction. This investigation shows that this is not always the case. It is anticipated that numerous injured parties from all over the world will now be identified,’ said Det Supt Cryan.

Other examples in recent years include a woman who gave a romance fraudster €48,000 over a 13-month period after she was showered with expensive gifts, before she was asked to invest in her suitor’s business. She initially delayed reporting the fraud to gardaí as she was married.

The extent of romance fraud scam will never truly be known because many of the victims are too embarrassed to report the fraud to gardaí.

‘You should always report any crime that occurs and never feel embarrassed about reporting it as it will be dealt with sensitively in any garda station,’ said Insp Ian O’Callaghan of Bandon Garda Station.

But for those who do decide to report the crime, the garda advice is to stop all contact immediately and keep all communication, such as the chat messages. Take screen grabs of conversations and phone numbers, and keep them safe.

‘Don’t feel embarrassed,’ urged a GNECB spokersperson. ‘File a complaint to the gardaí and report it to the site where the scammer first approached you and if you have provided your account details, contact your bank,’ they added.

Gardaí are advising people to watch out for the potential signs of scammers using online dating websites.

If someone you have recently met online professes strong feelings for you, and asks you to chat privately, but if their messages are often poorly written or vague, this should set off alarm bells.

Also, if their online profile is not consistent with what they have been telling you – or if they ask you to send intimate picture or videos of yourself – then beware.

Other tell-tale signs include a reluctance to meet in person or giving consistent excuses for not meeting up.

‘First of all they gain your trust, then they ask you for money, gifts, or your bank account/credit card details. If you don’t send the money, they may try to blackmail you and if you do send it, they will ask for more,’ a senior garda warns.

Some of the excuses used for getting people to send on money include covering the cost of travel to meet up, or ‘emergency medical’ expenses or for a ‘business opportunity’ which would allow them to live together comfortably.

And these scammers do not exclusively target men – women can find themselves victims, too.

How to date safely online

Be careful about how much personal information you share on social networks and dating sites

Always consider the risks, as scammers are present on the most reputable sites

Go slowly and ask questions

Research the person’s photo and profile to see if the material has been used elsewhere

Be alert to spelling and grammar mistakes, inconsistencies in their stories and excuses, such as their camera is ‘not working’

Don’t share any compromising material that could be used to blackmail you

If you agree to meet in person, tell family and friends where you are going

Beware of money requests and never send money or give credit card details, online account details or copies of personal documents

Avoid sending any upfront payments

Don’t ever transfer money for someone else (other than family members or lifelong friends); money laundering is a criminal offence

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