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A woman who was the victim of three romance fraudsters is urging people to be cautious when they’re approached by strangers online after she lost more than £30,000 to men she believed were in love with her.
Sophie, who is in her late 40s and lives in south Essex, was conned into sending cash and mobile phones, and had loans taken out in her name.
Some of the money was recovered thanks to the work of our officers, but the mental strain and emotional manipulation Sophie suffered led to her having a breakdown, damaged relationships with her family and saw her suspended from work for six months.
Sophie, who has three children, was looking for love on a dating site in 2019 after breaking up from her partner of 17 years.
She was messaged by a man who claimed to be of English and Swedish heritage and living in Dubai. The relationship developed but several months in, the man said his daughter was stranded in London after having had her bag stolen and needed cash immediately. Sophie transferred money for food and a hotel.
The man then started demanding money himself, made threats about Sophie’s children, and told her he’d send intimate photos to her work.
In total, he took out more than £25,000 in loans, rented hotel rooms, hired prostitutes, and spent hundreds of pounds in sex shops, all in Sophie’s name.
Sophie had a breakdown and went to the police.
She said: “I felt ashamed and humiliated. I was going through a lot of mental issues. I thought about taking my own life and that’s when my family came in and helped, and the police got the mental health team involved. My biggest fear was having my children taken away from me.
“Mentally, he stripped me of my happiness and wellbeing. I was low anyway and he was telling what I wanted and needed to hear. I thought he was in love with me.
“The police were brilliant. A CID inspector came from Chelmsford and he was lovely and really supportive. They gave me letters I could send to the banks and the credit card companies.
“I got a fair bit of the money back, but I had to go into an IVA (individual voluntary agreement to repay debt) so I can no longer get any credit or any cards for six years. I’m blacklisted because of what he has done to me. I can’t get a mortgage, I won’t have a house to leave my children.”
After a gap of more than a year, Sophie liked a post on Instagram which led to her being messaged by a man called Alan who said he was in the US Army.
They were in contact for five months and spoke on the phone before Alan started asking for money. He said his wife was a drug addict and he’d lost custody of his children. He posted a message on Facebook saying, ‘I love you Sophie’ and claimed it led to him being court martialled and fined £800. Sophie, feeling guilty, paid half.
Alan then told Sophie he wanted to marry her showed her pictures of flight tickets to London so they could finally meet in real life.
Sophie waited for four hours at London City airport but Alan never arrived.
He then claimed to have been detained and needed £3,500 for his release. The pair had an argument and when Alan smashed his mobile, Sophie sent a new one to an address in north Africa where he said he’d been transferred.
Over the course of 12 months, Sophie sent Alan £5,000-worth of cash and presents.
As the relationship with Alan cooled, Sophie was contacted on WhatsApp by a man called Heinz. He also said he was in the army and stationed in Dubai. He encouraged Sophie to stop contacting Alan.
They spoke and video called for six months. Heinz sent Sophie roses through the post and video messages at Christmas.
Heinz then asked if Sophie could do him a favour. Could someone send Sophie some money that she would forward onto him through Bitcoin?
Sophie agreed and £6,000 passed through her account before it was frozen. She was contacted by police and cautioned for money laundering.
Heinz had been grooming to up to 30 other people online and the money sent to Sophie had been from another romance fraud victim. It is believed Heinz and Alan are linked.
“What hurt the most was the other woman,” Sophie said. “Having her feel the way I did, I felt more ashamed that’d I’d (been involved) in putting her through that then anything.”
Heinz had also hacked information from Sophie’s mobile phone. That led to her family, friends and colleagues being targeted with fraudulent messages.
As a result, Sophie was suspended from her job for six months.
Sophie has lost both her mum and her best friend during the past two years and said the experience will take her a long time to fully recover from.
“I just wanted my own little piece of happiness. When it all turned out to be lies, it was devastating. It was the emotional effect it had on me – that feeling of being loved being ripped away. The whole last two years have been like a constant bereavement.
“Playing me like that was so cruel. Everything that has happened to me in my life was used against me. I will never be the same, but I’m getting back to the person I want to be.”
The one positive to emerge from the experience has been the victims’ support group that was started by Chloe Rudd, the Prevent and Protect Fraud Officer for Essex.
Sophie said the group has been “brilliant” and has given her a network of people who are there for each other on the bad days.
Chloe said it is estimated that only 20% of frauds are reported and that people need to arm themselves with the knowledge that may prevent them from becoming victims.
She said: “People don’t report fraud because they’re embarrassed and blame themselves, but fraud criminals are doing this all day, every day and become very good at it.
“Criminals spend time researching their targets to build a profile so the victim will feel they have lots in common. They then use this to manipulate them. It’s more targeted and organised than people realise. It’s big business.
“Dating sites can be a great way to meet new people, but people can make sure they are protecting themselves by following some straightforward fraud prevention advice.
“If you’re talking on a dating site, don’t leave the chat platform. If people start asking for money, the site can get involved.
“Do a reverse image search of the person you’re talking to and if you’re having a video chat, get them to hold up a piece of paper with a word you’ve chosen on it.
“A lot of fraud works by pressuring someone to make a decision they wouldn’t normally make by either making a time-limited offer or panicking people in to having to do something now.
“Do your research, take time to think about what it is you’re being asked to do and what information you’re being asked to provide. Just take however long it takes you to make an informed decision.”
If you believe you’ve been a victim of romance fraud, call us on 101. For other forms of fraud you can contact Action Fraud – the national fraud and cybercrime reporting centre – by clicking on the link or calling 0300 123 2040.