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Gary, Lucy and Steve aren’t a soldier, nurse or builder. They’re fake online profiles using somebody else’s photos, posted by organised crime gangs whose sole aim is to defraud innocent women and men who think they’ve found love. Every month, hundreds of people in the UK are conned out of sums as large as hundreds of thousands of pounds, often causing financial ruin and the trauma that accompanies it. It’s a particularly heartless crime as it also dashes victims’ hopes of finding love.

Expert tips to help protect you from romance fraud

Pick a reputable dating website and don’t move the conversation off the site’s messaging service until you’re confident the person is who they say they are.

Get to know the person, not the profile. Ask plenty of questions – don’t rush into an online relationship. This may also help you avoid becoming a victim of a false sexual relationship.

Check the person is genuine by putting their name, profile pictures or any repeatedly used phrases and the term ‘dating scam’ or ‘romance scam’ into your search engine.

Talk to your friends and family about your dating choices. Be wary of anyone who tells you not to tell others about them. Tell someone what you’re doing – and where – before meeting an online suitor in person for the first time.

Never send money or your bank details to someone you’ve met online, no matter what reason they give or how long you’ve been speaking to them. If you’re defrauded, your bank will normally do its best to recover your money, but is not responsible for refunding it if they don’t manage to do so.

Don’t give away too many personal details. Revealing your full name, date of birth, home address or workplace could lead to identity theft or even personal harm.

If you become a victim of romance fraud, report it immediately to the dating site where you met the perpetrator, and to Action Fraud on www.actionfraud.police.uk or on 0300 123 2040. This makes it easier to take action and protect other innocent people, even though you may feel embarrassed to tell anybody.

For the full picture on safe online dating, visit www.getsafeonline.org/protecting-yourself/online-dating/