'˜It was like a drug addiction'... Widow's warning after losing £100,000 in '˜romance fraud'

A Sussex widow who was conned out of more than £100,000 in an online befriending scam has issued a warning to others.

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Sussex Police has shared the 74-year-old’s experience of ‘romance fraud’ after dealing with 90 cases over the past year, seeing victims lose hundreds of thousands of pounds.

The woman, who asked to remain anonymous, was approached on Facebook in December last year by someone claiming to have been a childhood friend. They messaged for several hours a day before he began to ask for cash supposedly to help him release money owed to him through his work in the oil industry.

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Police said the woman gave over £108,000 in a matter of months and even re-mortgaged her home in a bid to satisfy the fraudster’s demands.

She said: “I felt that he was a friend and that he needed help.

“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 staff at the woman’s bank, Halifax, alerted Sussex Police thanks to the new Banking Protocol, introduced in Sussex in June.

The protocol sees bank staff trained to spot signs that a customer may be withdrawing cash to give to a scammer.

She continued: “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.

“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, a case worker 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 added. “She has given me the confidence to do things like get on the phone to the credit card companies.”

In December, Mrs Bourne funded two case workers for Sussex Police through Victim Support to work with vulnerable victims who have been systematically targeted by criminals.

The pair have since worked on 244 cases and spent 208 hours face-to-face with victims.

Mrs Bourne said: “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, said romance fraud is on the rise.

Victims tend not to report it as frequently as they are often still embroiled with the scammer and instead the force is often notified by companies like Moneygram or Western Union when large sums of money are being transferred.

She said: “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.

“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 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 protected]