'She was beautiful, funny - and she scammed me'
Thomas and Tonia met on social media and started messaging regularly about their shared passion for travel and their pet dogs.
Thirty-four-year-old Thomas, from the West Midlands, was besotted and was planning their future together, but Tonia was actually a fraudster.
"Tonia and I had so much in common and spoke every day for seven months. She was beautiful, funny and kind," he said.
"Looking back now I can't believe how easy it was for her to take advantage of me. I had no idea she was tricking me into giving out my personal details so she could get money."
He was the victim of an elaborate trick story. She claimed her parents had died and she was living with a grandmother with cancer in the US.
She said she was paying for food and expensive medical bills, and asked for money. In return, she showed him evidence that she was expecting a hefty inheritance. It was fake.
To make the story appear more realistic, money was transferred into his account. Tonia asked him to distribute it to various accounts, as she did not have one of her own.
In fact, the money had come from loans taken out in his name by the fraudster, without his knowledge. When he started receiving letters from those loan companies, he realised he had been scammed.
He went into his local HSBC branch, explained the situation, and the bank's fraud team refunded the money and is now working on repairing his credit rating.
"I have now shut down my social media account because I don't want to get into a relationship with anyone else that way. It's going to take me a long time to get over this and be able to trust anybody again," he said.
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This case is more unusual than regular romance scams, as the victim was a young man, but it has all the hallmarks of a classic fraud.
Many operate via dating services or social media, when the fraudster adopts a fake persona or picture, known as catfishing.
A survey for UK Finance suggested that 27% of those asked who used dating websites had been subject to a catfishing attempt.
Victims or potential victims had been asked for £321, on average, but many had been tricked out of a lot more.
Latest UK Finance data showed that £7.9m was lost to romance scams in the first half of 2019, an increase of 50% on the same period the previous year.
Katy Worobec, managing director of economic crime at UK Finance, said: "Romance scams can be emotionally and financially damaging for victims. The popularity of online dating services has made it easier for criminals to target victims, so we urge everyone to be cautious this Valentine's."
However, banks are still undecided between themselves on how to pay for refunds for victims of these and other types of so-called Authorised Push Payment (APP) frauds when neither the bank nor the victim are to blame.
A temporary agreement is in place between a number of banks to ensure people receive refunds, but that has only been extended until the end of March.
Online safety advice
- Criminals who commit romance fraud trawl through profiles and piece together information such as wealth and lifestyle, in order to manipulate their victims
- Police can investigate and help to provide support, but often cannot get the money back
- It is very simple for fraudsters to cover their tracks by masking IP addresses and using unregistered phone numbers
- Never send money to someone online you have never met
- Think twice about posting personal information that could be used to manipulate or bribe you