Valentine’s Day scam warning after widow gave thousands to Instagram flirt

UK police are warning lovestruck Brits on Valentine's Day not to get snared by an online romance scam.

Fraudsters often target lonely or vulnerable people and strike up a friendship with them via social media, which then develops into a romantic "relationship".

Once the victim becomes trusting enough, the scammer then asks them for money.

More than £68 million was lost to romance scams in the UK last year, a huge rise from 2018.

To raise awareness, Derbyshire Police have shared the story of a widow in her 70s who ended up handing over thousands of pounds to a man she met on Instagram.

The pensioner, whose husband died 25 years ago, used the social network to connect with friends. But last year she began receiving messages from someone claiming to be a 60-year-old major general in the US Army.

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"The first messages were just very friendly," she said. "They messaged me every day asking how my day had been and what I had been doing."

The two chatted for about six weeks, and the woman didn't feel any doubt that he was who he said he was. He claimed he was deployed to Afghanistan but needed money to be able to access his bank account.

"He asked me to buy some iTunes cards so that he could get the money from them and get access to his account," she admits.

"I went to a number of different places getting the iTunes cards and spent several hundred pounds in one day."

The kind-hearted woman sent her Instagram companion the codes on the backs of the vouchers, and he redeemed the money from them.

iTunes cards are often used in scams, prompting Apple to issue a warning to customers never to use one of their cards to pay for anything other than Apple products.

Unfortunately the woman wasn't wise to the scam and continued to fall for the man's requests for money.

The fraudster went as far as convincing her to pay for a fictitious parcel full of jewellery, including a ring. She was sent a fake shipping document that showed Customs requesting tens of thousands of pounds in order to release the package, and was told she must pay the fee to get the jewellery.

"I didn't tell anyone, I didn't know how I was going to get the money," she said.

Eventually her daughter discovered text messages from the Instagram scammer ordering her to pay the huge sum, and told her mum his demands were suspicious.

"This conman told me that when he retired he was going to come over and we were going to be married," the woman admits.

"Looking back now I think, 'how could you be so stupid?'"

Over the course of three months she sent £3,500 to her fictional fiancé, some of which was on a credit card and some a bank loan. She now has to take money out of her pension to pay it all back.

The experience has left her shaken and mistrustful of the online world.

"I question everything and everyone now, it's a terrible feeling. I have made all of my social media accounts private and if I am concerned about someone I report them immediately."

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She urges anyone who being courted by an online lover asking for money: "Don't listen to a word they say."

"The conmen are so good at what they do. It's almost like they are reading from a script. Every time I had a question they had an answer that seemed so plausible and I was suckered in.

"If anyone is approached online just take a moment and think about who you are talking to – because I wouldn't want anyone to go through what I went through."

Derbyshire Police say it's common for scammers to pretend to be in the military, and people should keep in mind armed forces personnel don't require money to access their accounts, pay for food or any other necessities they might claim.

They advise Brits to only add people as social media friends if they know them personally, and to talk to others about who they're speaking to online so they can keep an outside perspective on what is and isn't normal.

Suspected scams can be reported to Action Fraud.

Above all, police say: "Never send money to anyone who you have only met online – no matter how convincing their story might be."

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