CUFFING season – where single people seek short-term partners during the colder months – is in full swing.
But with more women than ever before looking for love online, many are being swindled out of thousands of pounds.
Figures from Victim Support show a 13 per cent rise in romance fraud over the past year.
Around 250,000 women have been scammed, according to NatWest, with fraudsters posing as love interests.
Here, Yasmin Harisha speaks to two women who found themselves out of pocket while looking for their perfect match.
‘I lost friends, my two sons and my partner of 29 years’, Sharon, 51
SHARON Bulmer was two years into her relationship before she realised the lonely soldier she had fallen for was a sick fraudster.
It started in May 2020, when a handsome stranger called Murphy Townsend from the US added the married mum of two, an administrator from Manchester, on Facebook.
She recalls: “He said he was lonely and serving in Syria in the 37th Infantry Brigade Combat Team at Base 29 in Raqqa.
“He told me he was 56 and his wife had passed away and he wanted someone to speak to.
“Murphy was sweet, nothing at all made me think anything different about him. He made me feel loved and cared for.”
The pair started an online relationship and, three months later, at the age of 49, Sharon decided it was time to leave the father of her children, who she had been with for 29 years.
She says: “My friends were happy for me at first. They didn’t think anything out of the ordinary.
The red flags to look for
THEY want your phone number immediately: Scammers will always try to get you away from dating websites or anywhere where their messages are being regulated to make it easier to trick you without intervention.
Their explanations don’t add up: Look out for inconsistencies in their backstory.
For example, if they claim to be well educated but use poor spelling that could be a sign they aren’t being truthful.
They give you a pet name: Scammers try to build bonds with their victims – and quickly.
One way they do this is by giving you a nickname. This creates a false sense of closeness.
You never meet them in person: They may make plans to meet you and then cancel at the last minute.
It’s all part of stringing you along to believe you’ll eventually be together.
They tell you about their financial woes: Once they think you truly care about them, they will create a scenario that makes it difficult for you to say no when they request money.
They might claim they are in danger or have no money to visit you.
… and why you’re not to blame
LISA Mills, senior fraud manager at the charity Victim Support, says con artists know exactly how to prey on the vulnerable.
She explained: “Year on year, we are seeing a consistent rise in victims needing our support due to romance fraud.
“These criminals are highly skilled manipulators who play with people’s emotions, often taking advantage of them when they are at their lowest, such as after a break-up or divorce.
“Unfortunately, many victims don’t come forward to report the offence as there is a lot of stigma associated with this type of crime.
“Frequently, we find that victims are too ashamed to speak to their friends or family about their experience.
“It is essential that victims know that they are never to blame.”
“But one of my mates did think something was suspicious when she found out I was sending money — and she stopped talking to me.”
Sharon handed over stacks of cash to Murphy for what she believed were flights and medical treatment.
She says: “In September, after talking online every day for six months, Murphy asked if he could come and visit me and if I could pay £1,400 for his flight via Bitcoin.
“I did it, then I hadn’t heard anything from him for a few days until I received a message from a different email address, but with the same name.
“They asked for another £15,000 for the plane ticket and, believing him, I paid up. He told me it was more expensive in Syria and there were so many changes to the flights.
“Then, at the end of the month, I received a message from someone claiming to be a doctor who said Murphy was unconscious in hospital.
“We didn’t speak until the following month, when he messaged me telling me how he’d been shot in the side on the way to the airport. I was incredibly concerned.
“Then he asked me for £5,000 to help with his medical bills, which I paid.
“The same month he started asking me for weekly payments, between £600 and £1,000, to cover the cost of administration fees, airlifting fees and to buy him out of his contract with the army.
“I was so happy with all the attention he gave me, he said all the right things and was making me feel good but then I added it all up.
I realised I had been scammed and since then I’ve lost friends, my two sons and my partner of 29 years.
“I think it was about £60,000 at this point, and I began to question Murphy, but he replied saying, ‘Lol, is that all?’.
“He would say that I would get it all back. I was in my own world with him.
“Murphy asked for £5,000 in February 2021 for a trip to the UK, but then claimed he lost his plane ticket.
“Then in November, he asked for £2,000 to see his daughter in Washington, and then a further £5,000 for the medical assessment.
“I never questioned his intentions, until I asked for proof of his medical assessment from a doctor in December 2021.
“He sent me a copy of a letter from a Paediatric Orthopaedic Surgeon at Al Mouwasat University Hospital, but when I Googled the name it was a doctor who treats kids with special bones. It confused me and I started to feel suspicious.
“I then approached the US Army to ask whether there was anyone named Murphy Townsend serving, and they said no.
“I questioned him on that and he turned round and said to me, ‘Are you dumb?’.
“I realised I had been scammed and since then I’ve lost friends, my two sons and my partner of 29 years.”
After two years, Sharon, 51, realised she had made the biggest mistake of her life and was in £37,000 of debt, having handed over a total of £80,000.
She says: “Murphy promised me the world.
“I had spoken to him on the phone and he sounded American.
“I know I have been a fool but these are the things we do for love.
“He promised me so much and it was so exciting, it made sense at the time.
“The police can’t help as my case didn’t rank highly enough on their score system for them to pass it on to fraud investigation.
“They’ve said it’s not serious enough, even though it’s a crime that’s been committed.
‘’I’ve lost everything and now I’m spending Christmas on my own.
“It’s like I’m in a dream and I can’t get out. I hope every day I can wake up from it.”
- If you’ve been a victim of romance fraud, Victim Support can help. Call free 0808 16 89 111