This later proved to be a fake message sent by her fraudster. In total Mary handed over £17,000 to him before receiving a call in May from the real American Embassy. “It said the name and passport details I had given were false and that I had been scammed. I was so ashamed: I wanted to die.”
Mary’s bank, RBS, agreed to reimburse her the £17,000, which she has used to pay off her debts. She said she had not even brought herself to tell her family what had happened.
This May alone 517 people fell victim to a romance scam, an 11pc increase from the same time last year, according to figures from Action Fraud, the national reporting centre. They lost more than £8,000 each on average.
Several vulnerabilities have been exposed in dating websites and apps. Accounts can be set up in less than five minutes and users are not always asked to verify their identity when applying. This allows scammers to create a profile easily using a fake name.
A fraud expert at one high street bank said some websites were slow to close scam accounts even after they had been reported and there was little stopping fraudsters from simply opening another using a different name and email address.
Commander Karen Baxter of the City of London Police previously told the Telegraph that while some dating agencies acted with due diligence, others did not. “We see a large number of cases coming from a few specific firms,” she added.
Amber Burridge of fraud prevention service Cifas said: “More people have been moving online during lockdown and dating sites have been one of the few ways to interact with new people. Fraudsters are exploiting people’s loneliness.”
She added it was inevitable that the number of people falling victim would increase as a result – “although there may be a delay in reporting, as people tend to take a while to realise they’ve been tricked.”
Cifas has noticed a number of ways fraudsters have exploited people’s vulnerability during the pandemic, including tricking those having to shield into spending hundreds of pounds on a Covid-19 test that never arrives and targeting bereaved families by posing as funeral directors and asking thousands of pounds for services that are never provided.
Jason Costain, head of fraud at RBS, said people looking for love were particularly vulnerable to being duped. “If you are emotionally invested, the fraudster just has to hit you at the right time with the right approach,” he said.
“Scammers are highly professional and often use set scripts. These are designed to make the victim feel trapped and guilty if they do not send the money.”
He recommended those using dating sites try copying the text of some of the messages they have received and searching the internet to see if it appears elsewhere.
“Often scammers steal images from other websites as their profile photo. Try using the reverse image search function on Google to check if an image is being used elsewhere.”