- BBC World News
When Rachel Elwell was contacted by a man on a dating site last January, she decided to accept his virtual invitation.
“His photo was cute,” he recalls. “He seemed to like the same things as me and sounded like an open and genuine person,” he told the BBC.
But what started as a promising exchange turned out to be a nightmare for the 50-year-old Briton.
Two and a half months later, Rachel would finish on the brink of bankruptcy, after giving more than $ 157,000 of his money to this man, whom he never met in person.
What happened to this export manager who lives in Brownhills, in the center of the United Kingdom, may sound crazy. But security experts warn that it is much more common than you think.
Elwell was a victim of what is known as romantic fraud or romantic scam.
According to Action Fraud, the UK’s national fraud reporting center, it occurs when criminals trick people into sending them money, earning their trust and convincing them that they are in a genuine relationship.
This type of deception is usually carried out by a form of scam known in English as catfishing (catfish fishing), which is when someone creates a fake account or profile, either on social media or dating sites, with the intention of scamming or abusing someone.
In 2020, the United States Federal Trade Commission reported that “reported losses from so-called romance scams reached a record high of US$304 million“.
Elwell’s case serves to show how a well-intentioned person can fall for this kind of deception.
The woman told the BBC that the man who contacted her told her that he lived in a nearby town called Cannock, but that they would have to wait a few weeks to meet because he was abroad, doing an engineering project. in Ukraine.
But after a while the man called her and told her that the laws in that country had changed due to the covid-19 pandemic and that now had to pay taxes before engineering work can begin.
He told him that the work was stopped until he paid that money, and that he had used his pension funds, sold his car and also had gone to moneylenders to collect the amount claimed.
The man even produced a letter – and sent Elwell a copy – supposedly from the Ukrainian treasury, requiring him to pay US $ 160,000.
“Everything looked very legit“says the woman, who” reluctantly “agreed to send him 45,000 pounds (about US $ 62,000).
But things got tense when the man contacted her to say that two “thugs” sent by the moneylenders had appeared at his house and locked him in the basement.
He told him that the men were claiming the borrowed money and sent him photos that allegedly showed him locked up.
Elwell decided to send him the money.
“When he told me that his life was in danger and I didn’t hear from him, I thought he had been murdered. Can you imagine feeling responsible for someone living or dying?“, he explains, when asked why he sent so much money to a person he did not know.
The fraud did not end there: the man told him that after receiving the money they had released him, but that they would not return his passport until he paid the interest, so Rachel returned to help him.
“All a lie”
On March 16, the day the man was supposedly flying back to London, Elwell went to Heathrow Airport to meet him, but received an email from alleged airport officials saying that he had been arrested.
He says that when he approached some Border Force officials to ask them about what was happening they told him: “Hey, it’s a scam.”
But it wasn’t until he visited the man’s supposed home to speak with his alleged daughter and housekeeper that he finally realized the reality.
“None of those people lived in that house,” he says.
“It was at that moment that I knew it was all a lie.”
A West Midlands police spokesman told the BBC: “Rachel’s case is an excellent example of romantic fraud and shows how much these scammers affect people’s lives“.
How to avoid deception
These are Action Fraud’s suggestions to avoid romantic fraud:
- Be suspicious of any request for money from someone you’ve never met in person, especially if you’ve recently met online
- Talk to family or friends for advice
- Check if the person’s profile picture is genuine. You can do it using a search engine such as Google Images, to see if that image has been used other times (something frequent in catfishing)
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.