Hereford & Worcester

Online dating conman 'left me hurt and violated'

Valentine's Day is usually a time for thoughts to turn all things romantic - but police warn it is also a time for scammers to "sharpen their arrows to play Cupid".

And one of those with bitter experience of romancing conmen is 59-year-old Vicky Fowkes, from Bushley, Worcestershire.

In 2010 Ms Fowkes found the courage to join a dating website.

She was subsequently targeted by a man from overseas, who claimed to be a South African businessman with UK links who happened to be working in Nigeria.

Ms Fowkes was tricked into giving nearly £40,000 to the man, who spent months wooing her on the internet and on long conversations on the telephone.

The man told her he had been detained in Nigeria due to tax problems and persuaded her to send cash on a number of occasions to supposedly help with his "legal problems".

"This scam has changed my life, emotionally and financially. It also had a detrimental effect on my health," Ms Fowkes said.

"It is only through the support, love and compassion of family and friends that I am where I am today."

'Hurt and violated'

Ms Fowkes was eventually alerted to the scam by the Economic Crime Unit of West Mercia Police, her local force.

"When I found out I had been scammed I felt utter disbelief - that this could not be happening to me," she said.

"I feel very emotional, hurt and violated."

Ms Fowkes said she wanted to tell her story to prevent other people from being caught by conmen in a similar way.

"It can happen to anybody," she said.

"I was being groomed to be financially ruined to somebody else's gain."

The conman, who used the alias "John Hawkins", has never been caught and Ms Fowkes' money has never been recovered.

Robin Longmore, financial intelligence officer at West Mercia Police, was the one who first identified Ms Fowkes was being conned.

He said it was estimated that "many millions of pounds" were being stolen from UK victims each year in similar scams.

But he added the actual number of people affected was difficult to evaluate.

"Many victims do not come forward through embarrassment - and indeed some refuse to accept that they are victims when spoken to by officers - and continue to send money," Mr Longmore said.

'Money mule'

He said conmen would usually profile their targets to establish if they had money available which they could get them to part with.

"If not, the victims will often be unknowingly used instead as a money mule for laundering money," he added.

"Funds are invariably asked to be sent via a money service business... to third parties, often overseas and particularly in West African countries, but we have had instances where funds have been sent to China and other countries and these are then moved on again."

The Association of British Introduction Agencies regulates and monitors the online and offline dating industry in the UK.

As opposed to online dating agencies, the traditional "offline" agencies usually require clients to visit in person - and show three forms of ID.

The not-for-profit watchdog only accepts dating agencies for membership if they have been trading for at least 12 months and have met other criteria, such as having a viable business plan.

It also only deals with UK companies which have UK-based phone numbers and offices.

Regulator spokesperson Karen Mooney said scammers usually targeted "mainly vulnerable women who perhaps are a bit lonely".

"They tell them how lovely they sound," she said.

"They've never met, but they feel they know them.

"Normally a very sensible person with money can hand over money because they think it'll bring happiness."

Ms Mooney added: "He's offered her a dream."

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