A romeo who was duped out of thousands of pounds in a romance scam has urged north-east love seekers – “don’t fall for fake love like I did”.
Sophisticated fraudsters lured the 53-year-old to Aberdeen International Airport using a honey trap con in which they convinced him he was going to meet the love of his life from Russia.
The victim was on his way – when he heard his “girlfriend” had been arrested in London – and needed him to pay a £4,000 fine to free her.
Shocking new figures show the man, who has asked not to be named, was among 23 victims of dating or romance fraud in the region in the last 12 months, with fraudsters fleecing them out of a total of £176,235.32.
That is an increase on the previous 12 months, when there were 19 incidents, though the total loss was higher at £188,997.66.
Now, detectives are urging people to take steps to protect themselves when dating on the web – and the victim has backed their campaign for greater online safety.
The man, who we have decided to name Peter, is originally from England and moved to Kemnay in 2008 as his marriage of almost 30 years had struggled and he had hoped the change of location would give them a new start.
But the marriage broke down and a subsequent two-year relationship ended when his girlfriend turned violent.
Seeking to rebuild his life back in England, the dad of two joined the Plenty of Fish website and started talking with 29-year-old Natalia from Russia.
The pair chatted regularly and were getting on – and then she asked him for cash.
Peter said: “She messaged me first. I would speak with her every other night for between half an hour and an hour at most – all via Plenty of Fish. She tried to get my phone number but I wouldn’t give it.
“She kept sending me pictures of what I thought was her and, after about a few weeks, she would ask for money for food and medication for her dad
“I didn’t fall for it at first, but then I did – I was an idiot. She persuaded me to.”
Peter would send the funds using Western Union – a company favoured by scammers because transactions are hard for police to trace.
The woman took such a shine to Peter she decided to start a new life in Aberdeen, where she claimed to have found work.
Natalia told him she would be flying to Aberdeen via London and they arranged to meet in the Granite City – but it all went wrong.
Peter said: “It got to a stage where she said her air flight tickets were coming to her, so she could fly to London and I believed her, so I helped her out and lost more than £1,000. She told me it was going on a passport and flights.
“At first she had said she wanted to work here for six months, then go home – and then changed her story to say she wanted to stay in the north-east for good.
“I suppose in one way I was quite excited that she was coming. I believed it all, but it turned out it was a load of lies.”
Peter was so excited by the prospect of meeting Natalia in the flesh he cut short a holiday with his children to ensure he was there to meet her at arrivals in Aberdeen.
“I was on holiday with my grandchildren, my two sons and my daughter and I cut a day off the holiday so I could drive back from England to Scotland, knowing she would be at Aberdeen Airport.
“I was ready to go to the airport and got a message on the computer to say she had been arrested in London before her connecting flight.
“She said she needed money. I was shocked. She wouldn’t explain why she had been arrested but told me the only way she would get out of it is that someone paid her £4,000 fine.
“She said it had to be paid into a Western Union account, someone would be able to withdraw it for her, take it to Stansted and then she could pay the fine.”
Peter paid up – and never heard from ‘Natalia’ again.
He said: “I was very upset. I had just driven 300 miles to get to Scotland. I was worn out and all this happened.
“I had told my kids about this situation and then had to tell them the truth about what had happened.
“I kept messaging her. After a month I got a message from someone saying they had used me to get the money and wouldn’t hear from them again.”
Peter reported the matter to police, who are still investigating, though he said he believes it is unlikely they can catch his tormentors.
He said the Halifax building society has twice rejected his appeal for compensation from them.
A Halifax spokesman said they could not comment on individual cases, but that customers occasionally do not take sufficient steps to protect themselves.
He added: “We have a great of sympathy and a decision not to provide a refund is never one which is taken lightly.”
Summing up his experience, Peter said: “To find out Natalia never existed – I felt like a bloody idiot.
“It has drained me. I felt embarrassed. I now feel a lot more cautious when speaking with people.
“My family have been supportive and helped me through it.
“I want to stay single now. I’ve had a horrible experience and am done with dating. It’s done me in. This is my life now.”
Appealing to those looking for love online, Peter said: “I would say be very cautious. If they start talking about money – stop, right there.
“Don’t fall for fake love like I did. These people are very convincing.
“If me coming forward to talk to the media about it does help people then I’m quite happy about that.
“People might be a bit embarrassed about it like I was but at the end of the day, they shouldn’t feel like they have to keep it hidden because these fraudsters have got to be stopped.”
A Plenty of Fish spokeswoman said: “We have a zero-tolerance policy on predatory behaviour of any kind on Plenty of Fish, and take the issue of fraud very seriously.
“We have a network of systems and preventative processes in place designed to help support and protect our members.
“Ultimately, no one should ever send money to someone they haven’t met in person.
“We encourage our members to report anyone requesting financial information.
“Reporting an individual for inappropriate conduct is both straightforward and important.
“These steps will greatly assist in stopping almost every scam in its tracks and help protect the next potential victim.
Detective Sergeant John Lumsden, of Aberdeen CID, said: “The perpetrators usually try to build up a very quick relationship with the victim.
“There’s usually quite a strong bond.
“They try to play on any vulnerabilities the victim has or play on their sensitive side and, within a relatively short space of time, they will start asking for small amounts of money initially.
“The fraudsters are very convincing and very well-practised.
“They could be speaking to 10 or 20 people at one time looking for the same outcome.
“The victims are effectively opening their hearts and looking to find love so immediately it shows some vulnerability.
“When they are trying to look for something they are putting themselves out there.”
Recommending ways to avoid the fraud, Det Sgt Lumsden said: “Never share any personal information – they can try to exploit that – that includes telephone numbers.
“At least on these dating sites, conversations are stored within each platform and that is something we can examine later on.
“As soon as you take that conversation elsewhere and use text messages, it is very hard for us to get access to information.
“I certainly wouldn’t start sharing personal information until such a time you meet that person face to face.
“If the person is constantly throwing up barriers, such as saying ‘I can’t meet you, I’m abroad’ – the relationship is either good enough to wait for, or it’s easily identifiable as a scam.
“If someone is not willing to meet and keeps throwing those barriers up – that’s when the red flags start appearing.
“Don’t share any intimate photographs because the fraudster can use this to exploit money from individuals.”
Det Sgt Lumsden, who is based at Queen Street station in Aberdeen, encouraged people who are dating online and unsure about whether they are being conned is to speak with loved ones and to not be afraid in contacting police for advice.
“Even if there has not a crime, report it to the dating site you’re using, report to the police or via Crimestoppers. We can act on that information.”
Reflecting on the fact that almost two people from the north-east have fallen victim to romance fraud each month in the last 12 months, he added: “It’s very easy to fall victim to it and, because it’s very personal, people feel embarrassed about it.
“It’s not something to be embarrassed about. It happens to a lot of people.
“The more people that talk about it, the more information we can give and the more chance we have of stopping it happening.”
Det Sgt Lumsden said this kind of fraud has a particularly harsh impact on victims because they suffer emotionally and financially.
He said: “After something like this it will be hard for victims to put themselves out there again to meet new people.
“That is why I’m hoping to highlight this issue, increase awareness and get people talking about it.”