Fake escort agency website victims sought by investigators
A fake internet escort agency scam has made a gang £6m, trading standards investigators have discovered.
Bank accounts seized across England have revealed more than 14,000 people have fallen for the fraud.
Many paid the gang in cash and so far the investigation by Suffolk trading standards has traced only 80 victims.
The scam involved numerous fake agencies which lured victims with promises of up to £600-a-day fees to be non-sexual escorts.
They were persuaded to pay a registration fee of about £300 after being told they had dates lined up. But the sites were fictitious.
In another scam, victims handed over thousands of pounds after being told their debts could be wiped clean.
One woman from Suffolk, who did not want to be identified, told the BBC she had felt a mug for falling for the scam.
"I was having money difficulties and it seemed like an easy way to make genuine money just to go to meet someone.
"I was due to meet a gentleman in Ipswich for a drink and then go to the cinema for maybe four hours and possibly £600.
"They said a taxi would pick me up and take me home again. I feel very foolish."
'Stigma' of agencies
It has taken a year to investigate and is the biggest inquiry ever conducted by Suffolk Trading Standards.
Last November bank records and hundreds of documents were seized in raids across England.
A number of people remain on police bail pending further inquiries.
Principal trading standards officer Mark Skillin said the websites looked completely legitimate.
"Unfortunately a lot of the victims are people who really haven't got that money to spend or lose. They are people who are desperate, and that is why they have taken this work," he said.
"The websites promised it was non-sexual encounters, and of course with the stigma of escort agencies people are reluctant to come forward.
"We'd ask anyone who has signed up to any one of these websites or made a telephone call and paid money to contact us.
"Investigators are trying to trace thousands of victims of an internet scam which has made a gang £6m."