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Online Dating Scam Is Increasing, But Under-Reported

Update Date: Mar 29, 2012 01:48 PM EDT

Online romance scams, a new form of fraud, is under-reported and increasing, and has victimized 230,000 people in Great Britain, costing them nearly $60 billion a year, according to a new study.

Monica Whitty, University of Leicester, and Tom Buchanan, University of Westminster, document the rapid growth in these serious crimes and how cybercriminals pursue and steal from their victims. They describe the devastating financial and emotional losses the victims suffer.

The scammers contact the victim pretending to initiate a romantic relationship and establish a strong bond with them that can last from 6 to 8 months. Next they request money from victims by creating a story of a tragic or desperate circumstance such as theft of personal documents during travel, unexpected hospital funds, or travel expenses. Heavy costs may be incurred before the scam is exposed. 

For the study researchers of the study obtained a representative sample of adults in Great Britain. The sample comprised 2028 British adults aged 18 years and older. The sample included 902 men and 1126 women. 

All participants were asked the following question: ''In the'online romance scam' criminals set up fake identities using stolen photographs (often of models or army officers) and pretend to develop a romance relationship with their victim. This is often done using online dating sites and social networking sites. At some point during the relationship they pretend to be in urgent need of money and ask for help. Many individuals have been persuaded to part with large sums of money before their suspicions are aroused. Had you heard of the 'online romance scam' before taking this survey?'' Participants could respond either: ''Yes, I had'' or ''No, I hadn't''.

After this, participants who had heard about the online romance scam were further asked: ''Before taking this survey, where had you previously heard about the online romance scam?'' They were asked to select as many options as they like and were given the following options: a friend, the television, a newspaper, a magazine, the internet, online dating site, radio, other, or can't recall.

Finally, all participants were asked: ''Have you or anyone you know ever been a victim of the 'online romance scam' (i.e., scammed out of any amount of money)?'

The questions were administered as part of an omnibus survey, together with other questions on multiple unrelated topics. 
The data were collected from the 6th-8th July, 2011. The response rate to the survey was approximately 33.3 percent.

Overall it was found that 0.65 percent of the sample had been scammed. This equates to almost 230,000 people. Moreover, 2.28 percent of the sample claimed they personally knew someone who had been scammed. This equates to approaching 1,100,000 people. 

This study revealed that 51.66 percent of British people had heard of the online romance scam. Overall, 1051 participants stated that they had heard of the online romance scam prior to answering the survey. These individuals were then asked where they had previously heard about the online romance scam, and to select as many options as applied. 

"The present results suggest warnings about the fraud are reaching about half the British population. This provides us with a marker for future research into preventive measures. It may well be, of course, that knowledge of the crime does not prevent it. However, it is important to compare knowledge of the crime and number of victims in future studies," said authors of the study.

"This study revealed that prevalence rates are much higher than previous estimates, which were mainly based on the reporting of the crime to the police. This large discrepancy indicates that the crime is under-reported, and further suggests that the law enforcement community needs to make it easier for victims to report the crime," they added.

The study was published in Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, a peer-reviewed journal published by Mary Ann Liebert, Inc. 

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