Online dating fraud rose by 40 per cent in the year to April 2021, with more than 7,500 incidents reported.
As three national lockdowns made it difficult to meet other singles in person, more users turned to online dating.
Which? described the scams as a “sophisticated type of fraud”, with scammers posing to be someone else and preying on the “emotional vulnerability” of a victim before asking for money.
While catfishing is not a crime in the UK, it becomes an offence if a catfish requests money.
In most cases, the perpetrators are based abroad and request the funds to allegedly travel to the UK to be with the victim.
One victim, who was not identified, had been exchanging messages with a supposed Russian woman he met on the dating website “Older Dating Online”.
After some weeks, she asked for £650 to obtain a passport to come to the UK.
She later requested a further £3,000 which she claimed would prove to Russian authorities that she had sufficient cash to visit the UK.
“I became suspicious and contacted my bank to report the scam, but the money couldn’t be recovered,” the victim said.
“I haven’t dated at all since the scam. I am not one who exudes confidence in that area and with Covid-19 rearing its ugly head, more traditional ways have not been possible.
“I didn’t report what happened on the website. Likely at the time for the reason I guessed it was my fault for being taken in, not their fault for being in existence,” he added.
Some scammers are also using sophisticated technology to dupe potential victims.
One woman reported that she had a “strange video call” with someone, before later realising they had used stolen video footage of a plastic surgeon in the USA.
“How they did it I have no idea because I discovered those pictures were of a plastic surgeon in the USA. It worries me that some women will fall for it,” she said.
Many victims have attempted to recover the money through their banks. Under the UK’s Contingent Reimbursement Model Code, victims of bank transfer scams should be reimbursed for losses when they are not at fault.
Although most banks have signed the code, 38 per cent of all losses were returned to romance fraud victims in 2020. Adam French, consumer rights expert at Which? equated the code to a “reimbursement lottery for victims”.
“Romance scams are particularly devastating for victims, who may be vulnerable when they are targeted by fraudsters – and it is very worrying to see such a huge rise in these scams as criminals look to exploit the pandemic,” he said.
“The voluntary code on scams has led to a reimbursement lottery for victims. It should be replaced with mandatory standards for protection and reimbursement and strong enforcement for firms that don’t follow the rules,” he added.
French said anyone struggling to get their money back from their bank can report the case to the Financial Ombudsman Service for review.
If a fraudster has stolen your money, report this to Action Fraud using the online fraud reporting tool, or by calling 0300 123 2040 Monday to Friday 8am-8pm. You should also tell your bank.
Being a victim of fraud can take a huge toll on your mental health so make sure you talk to someone to get the support you need. Charity Victim Support offers a free and confidential helpline available on 0808 16 89 111 (lines open 24/7). Mind also has a support line, Mind Infoline, available on 0300 123 3393 (lines open 9am – 6pm, Monday – Friday).