A FRAUD victim who lost £85,000 after accepting a Facebook friend request from a scammer posing as an Army doctor said: “I feel like crying every day.”
The retired Rotherham woman has bravely decided to tell her story to save others from being duped by so-called “romance fraudsters”, who fraud expert Andy Foster said were tricking victims out of an estimated £50 million every year.
She she was so ashamed and embarrassed about what had happened that she had not even been able to tell her friends and most of her family, admitting: “I didn’t tell anyone what was going on and I still haven’t told anyone else. I just can’t.
“I used to have money and could do what I wanted but I lost so much.
“I don’t want this to happen to anyone else, for anyone else to feel like I feel.”
The woman, going by the pseudonym Penelope, said she had recently lost her partner when she was first contacted online.
“I did not go onto a romantic website,” she said.
“I just got a friend request on Facebook and I just said to accept it.
“He (the scammer) said he came from Washington DC and was a surgeon but that he was based in Somalia.”
The scammer convinced Penelope they had a lot in common and he wanted to come and visit her in the UK — before asking for money to make this happen.
Initially, this meant £3,000 for permission to take leave, which Penelope sent by bank transfer.
As the compliments and apparently romantic messages kept coming, so did the demands for money, including £4,900 for a “freedom pass”, £9,000 for a marriage certificate, £17,000 for costs towards arranging the proposed trip and a whopping £20,000 to pay for a jet supposedly arranged through the United Nations.
Duped into thinking the scammer was genuine, Penelope ended up making 13 separate payments totalling £85,000 including bank fees.
The scam only came to light when Penelope finally confided, 18 months after the fateful friend request, in her sister.
Her shocked sibling, who had lent her £10,000 without knowing what it was for, told her she had been scammed and to call the police.
Penelope said it was a shock to realise she had taken been advantage of as the fraudster had won her trust.
“He told me he loved me all the time and I thought he did love me,” she said.
“I never spoke to him — he said it was for security reasons, so we exchanged messages and pictures on Google Hangouts.
“Andy says I shouldn’t call myself stupid but I know I have been. It doesn’t matter what anyone else says but I have been.
“I just worked in a bank for 20 years and I thought I knew people and could spot a wrong ‘un.
“I thought I knew...but obviously I don’t.”
Mr Foster said: “Fraudsters give people hope and they gave Penelope hope which basically entrapped her into the lies of the organised criminals.
“When they meet their victims, they suddenly have ‘lots of things in common’ and then after a relationship and trust has been built up between the victim and the offender, that’s when the offender ‘needs support financially’.
“It’s common for offenders to move people away from the original platform they engage in to another platform and Hangouts is a popular one used by these romance fraudsters who do not car about the devastation they leave behind.
“I think Penelope is incredibly brave talking about her story.”
Penelope, whose bank never stopped in to question the numerous large payments, said: “I don’t want it to happen to anyone else. I don’t think it matters how much you lose if someone’s taken it like that.
“I think about it and a cry and I don’t know how long it will be before I can stop trying.
“But I don’t want to cry. I want something to be done about it.
“I was lonely and vulnerable. I don’t want people to feel like this and if I can stop one person being taken in like this that’s good.
“I just never thought I would be taken in by something like this but I was.
“There’s nothing I can do about it now but I never accept a friend request now, because my trust has gone.
“If I had not told my sister I would not have reported it. I would probably still be sending money to him now.
“It all just seemed plausible and I trusted him.
“I just want to know to ask them (the scammers): ‘Why would you do this? Why?’
Penelope’s bank never stepped in to question the payments and she said they were now refusing to speak to her after she reported her case to the Financial Ombudsman.
Police have arrested a man connected to one of the bank accounts involved but fraud expert said the gangs conducting these scams were based all over the world.
Andy said he believed banking safeguards had “failed clearly” in her case, adding: “How can anyone make 13 payments like this without question?”