Starting with the basics, what is ‘romance fraud’?
According to Action Fraud (https://www.actionfraud.police.uk/a-z-of-fraud/dating-fraud) romance scams involve people being duped into sending money to criminals who go to great lengths to gain their trust and convince them that they are in a genuine relationship. They use language to manipulate, persuade and exploit so that requests for money do not raise alarm bells. These requests might be highly emotive, such as criminals claiming they need money for emergency medical care, or to pay for transport costs to visit the victim if they are overseas. Scammers will often build a relationship with their victims over time.
One of the best, current examples of romance fraud, is the hit Netflix documentary ‘The Tinder Swindler’ SPOILER ALERT!
If you have not watched it/read about it or simply have not seen any media outlets recently! The Tinder Swindler is about, Shimon Hayute aka Simon Leviev who poses as a man who has wealth and power. He seems to be able to corroborate this story, showing his victims himself and his family, who appear to own a diamond business. However, we learn that this is not his reality, this image has been photoshopped. The reality is, that Shimon Hayute came from an impoverished background – he is wanted in both Finland and Israel and possibly many other countries too for fraud as well as other crimes.
The Swindler manipulated women using his wealth to impress them at first, taking them on lavish dates and flying them around the world. However, months in, suddenly there are ‘enemies’ after Simon and he encourages his victims to send vast sums of money in order to help protect him and in turn their relationship. This money was alleged to cover the fact that the ‘enemies’ could track the Swindler through his bank accounts and therefore in some cases the victims were asked to physically bring him large sums of money in cash.
It’s worth mentioning here that the victims had been sent pictures of both the Swindler and his body guard in the back of an ambulance, with graphic injuries sustained. The Swindler would send these images to his victims (sending the same images to multiple victims) to prove the danger that he was in. It is interesting that he would build suspense when sending these messages by sending these images without an explanation for a number of minutes in order to gaslight his victims and send them into panic. This therefore, added credibility to the story as his ‘enemies’ had attacked him. This was a double pronged attack too, in the sense that because these ‘enemies’ were after him, he was using it as an excuse to stay away from his victims for prolonged periods of time in order to keep his victims ‘safe’.
But why is this guy not in jail?
The Tinder Swindler, had previously been in jail for 5 months, after being convicted for fraud in Israel. However, he was released early from his 18-month sentence.
However, in relation to the ‘crimes’ explored in the documentary, the trouble here is the fact each of these victims gave the Tinder Swindler money of their own volition. They believed that they were giving him money in order to protect him and their relationship – all the Tinder Swindler did was lie. While this lie resulted in these women losing large sums of money, it could be argued that at no point he committed a ‘crime’. It was all just a lie.
Unfortunately, therefore the Swindler has not faced charges in relation to his ‘crimes’ filmed in the Netflix documentary. This may be because the Swindler was never in once country for very long, when we are looking at carrying out an investigation, law enforcement does not have time to put a case together and establish the facts. Not to mention the fact that the Swindler is known to be using false identities when traveling, which adds an additional level of complexity to the case. In times where departments receive very little funding, it is easier to understand why the Swindler has not been charged.
You will also notice, if you have watched the documentary, that the investigation carried out by the newspaper containing the original story (https://www.vg.no/spesial/2019/tindersvindleren/english/) took months. When the Swindler is flitting from country to country it is distinctively harder to keep track of his movements. Not to mention the fact that in country hopping the Swindler will be operating in different jurisdictions.
From a digital law standpoint, the definition of fraud is not broad enough at this point to include cases such as the Tinder Swindler. Despite the fact that these victims, who have taken out huger personal loans and lost vast amounts of money to this catfish, will have to pay the money back. While to an extent the Consumer Credit Act 1974 (click here for an explanation of how this Act aims to protect consumers https://www.which.co.uk/consumer-rights/regulation/consumer-credit-act-ayvHZ8H0jVl8) may apply to a small amount of the lost funds, this however cannot be applied to the likes of the personal loans. Therefore victims, whether the victims involved in the documentary or other unknown victims will be left with a serious amount of debt which they will need to pay.
Going back to our initial definition of ‘romance fraud’ from Action Fraud, you can clearly see here that the Swindler is gaining his victim’s trust through these lavish gestures to convince them that their relationship is real. This is why then when he convinces his victims that he is in danger and by association, they are too, it is easier to ignore the serious red flags here. From an outsider looking in, it would seem obvious that this is a red flag. Who would give someone such a huge amount of money in order to stop some alleged ‘enemies’?
While this example is an extreme case of ‘romance fraud’, when a trusting relationship has been formed it is foreseeable that what may start as a small favour can then be built upon until criminals are ‘borrowing’ large sums of money.
In a report published by the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre (‘NCSC’), the average financial cost of romance fraud being conducted through social media apps such as Facebook, Tinder and Plenty of Fish, is estimated at £6100 per victim, according to a recent report by TSB Bank. Whilst all age groups are susceptible to romance fraud, the average age of victims is 47, with women losing on average £6,300, compared to £4,600 for men.
The TSB report reveals alarming details of romance fraud cases, with the average ‘relationship’ seeing victims of romance fraud making payments for two months (62 days) – and with over a third of all cases starting on Facebook. Across the banking industry, romance fraud almost doubled during the pandemic with a recorded increase in losses of 91 percent compared to pre-pandemic levels – and an average loss of £6,100.
TSB have revealed the online platforms that accounted for the highest number of fraud cases where a source of origin was recorded; these are:
- Facebook – where fake profiles led to over a third (35%) of all fraud cases.
- This is followed by almost a quarter (24%) on Tinder, over a fifth (21%) on Plenty of Fish and almost one in 10 (9%) from com.
- The following platforms all account for three percent of cases in which the platform was recorded: com; Bumble and Instagram.
While this article has explored what romance fraud is, arguably the most important takeaway here is how to spot and avoid romance fraud.
Tips for avoiding romance fraud:
1. Be careful of what information you share online; scammers will often try to gather as much information about you as possible so they can build their arsenal. The more they know about you as a person, the easier it is for them to gain your trust and manipulate you.
2. Don’t link to your other profiles, it’s probably safer not to link your dating apps to your social media profiles. Whatever info you provide on the app can be supplemented with that from your social media accounts.
3. Be sparing with personal information, it’s a good idea not to provide your full name, date of birth, workplace, or any other information that could be used to find you online. They may pretend to have shared interests or friends in common to gain your trust.
4. Go slowly, when chatting with a new match on a dating app, don’t feel the need to tell them your life story straight away. They might ask you questions about where you work, live, or studied (certain answers might even help them guess your passwords).
5. Background check, try searching the info they provide in their profile to see if it has been used elsewhere. For example, if you find the same name and job title with a different photo, that could mean they’ve stolen personal info and photos from different people to create a fake profile.
6. Recognise the warning signs, a major red flag for romance scams (or even the less malicious but still dangerous catfishing) is that they make excuses not to meet up. There may be a long-lasting reason they can’t meet, or they frequently make excuses to cancel plans.
7. NEVER send money, this might seem obvious, but never ever agree to send someone money or provide personal information like IDs or bank details for any reason. No matter how good the story is, you should never be asked to send money to someone you haven’t met.
8. Speak to someone you trust, if you’ve developed a relationship with someone through a dating app but suspect that something is off, reach out to a loved one you know has your best interest at heart. It may help to see if they are concerned about your situation. A romance scammer will usually try to create an “us against the world” mentality with their victim. It’s ideal for them if you become isolated from friends and family, who are more likely to be able to point out inconsistencies and red flags because they aren’t caught up in the romance. It’s important to notice if a relationship with someone you’ve never met in person is getting in the way of your relationships with friends and family.
Online relationship tips:
If several of the points below apply to an online relationship, you’re in, it could be a sign you’re actually dealing with a fraudster:
- They seem to have fallen in love with you rather quickly;
- They soon want to leave the dating site or app, to use instant messaging, email or text instead;
- They claim to be from the UK, but say they’re away working or travelling; and
- They plan a visit to see you, but something comes up at the last minute to prevent them from coming.
One of these points on its own may be innocent. But more than one, together with a request for money, can be a sign that it’s a romance scam.
While romance fraud is unfortunately growing in the UK, documentaries such as The Tinder Swindler shine a light on the dark side of online dating. Particularly as we look at the huge online reaction that the world has experienced as a result of this documentary, looking towards the future there may be hope for fraud victims. Using their story in the documentary in order to expose criminals such as Shimon Hayute and open the public’s eyes as well as the governments in order to protect others against romance fraud.