A new million-euro criminal industry targeting wealthy divorcees is growing in Europe. Organised crime syndicates are preying on middle-aged users of dating websites in Germany, the UK and France by running simple scams, an adviser to Europol tells Newsweek.
Fraudsters in Southern and Eastern European countries set up ghost accounts, often claiming to be soldiers on tour or nurses working in remote locations, giving an excuse for not being in regular contact with their victims, who they meet on dating sites. The owners of the fake profiles then hit a tragedy, a family bereavement or medical emergency, and ask victims to send money through hard-to-trace methods like money transfer services.
Professor Alan Woodward, a cyber crime adviser to EU law enforcement agency Europol, says gangs are attracted to the business by the high incomes and relatively low risk.
"Why walk into a bank with a sawn-off shotgun and maybe get €30,000, when you can make millions by defrauding people online?" he says.
According to Woodward, these gangs produce so-called "sucker lists" with details of victims who have previously fallen for internet romance scams, which are then sold on to other criminals for a profit.
Europol's chief financial officer, Igor Angelini, says dating fraud is becoming an increasingly international problem. He has worked on cases in the past where Nigerian and Romanian gangs have collaborated to share resources and expertise, he says. In a recent operation, Italian police seized more than €2.5 million and arrested 10 members of a Nigerian scamming gang who were trawling dating websites for wealthy victims as well as committing other types of online fraud.
Angelini says it is difficult to put a number on the total cost of dating frauds due to victims' embarrassment at coming forward "Unfortunately in many occasions the victim is not inclined to report this particular type of fraud," he says.
Though exact figures are hard to come by, £32m (€43m) was lost last year by online daters in the UK alone, according to government monitors Action Fraud. Woodward says those most susceptible to these scams are older, perhaps divorced Western Europeans with disposable income.