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28 September 2011
Online romance scams vastly underreported
by George Atkinson

New research from the University of Leicester reveals that more than 200,000 people living in Britain may have fallen victim to online romance scams - far more than had been previously estimated. The study is believed to be the first formal analysis of the problem, the scale of which is likely to be repeated in other Western nations.

Typically, online scam artists set up fake identities using stolen photographs and pretend to develop a romantic relationship with their victim. Usually, this is done using online dating sites or social networking sites. At some point during the relationship the criminal pretends to be in urgent need of money and asks for help. Many victims have been persuaded to part with large sums of money before their suspicions are aroused.

The researchers found that one in every 50 adult respondents (2 percent) knew someone personally who had fallen victim to the scam. From this figure, the researchers estimate that over two hundred thousand British citizens have fallen victim to the crime. This large number of victims does not tally with officially reported figures, which confirms the belief held by law enforcement agencies that this type of crime is often not reported by those affected.

The British Serious Organized Crime Agency (SOCA) said romance fraud is closely linked to organized crime and the protagonists usually operate from outside the UK. Financial losses experienced by victims of online romance scams varied between UK50 and UK240,000. Interestingly, scammers' victims also suffered what is effectively a bereavement, from the loss of a relationship they believed to be genuine.

"Our data suggests that the numbers of British victims of this relatively new crime is much higher than reported incidents would suggest. It also confirms law enforcement suspicions that this is an under-reported crime, and thus more serious than first thought. This is a concern not solely because people are losing large sums of money to these criminals, but also because of the psychological impact experienced by victims of this crime," said study leader Professor Monica Whitty.

Whitty adds that the trauma caused by this type of scam is worse than any other, because of the double hit experienced by the victims - loss of monies and a romantic relationship. "It may well be that the shame and upset experienced by the victims deters them from reporting the crime. We thus believe new methods of reporting the crime are needed," she said in conclusion.

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Source: University of Leicester

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