Woman 'left with nothing' after romance fraud
A woman has told how she lost her home and was declared bankrupt after she became the victim of a "romance scam".
Within weeks of meeting on a dating website, Alan Clarkson was stealing Michelle Szombara's money.
Over four years, the fraudster, from West Lothian, stole more than £60,000 from Ms Szombara and her parents.
The 40-year-old, of Fife, says she feels "embarrassed and ashamed" but she is backing a police campaign to raise awareness of the crime.
She said: "He turned up at my house with some spare clothes and stayed for the next four years," she said.
Police said Clarkson then started to claim he could not access his bank account and was in debt.
He sent her emails claiming to be from financial institutions and produced fake paperwork which claimed he had money in another account to pay her back.
Ms Szombara said: "He took over the rent for my house. I ended up over £7,000 in rent arrears and my council tax wasn't getting paid.
"It got to the stage we were living off of nothing. I was so stressed.
"I did every hour going at my work to be left with nothing. I had a lovely house and I lost everything."
The fraud extended to parents, who also handed over money to Clarkson. They lost the home they owned as a result of the fraud.
"At the end of the day I was still young enough to work and get all my money back - my mum and dad weren't at the end of the day.
"What he had took was their pension fund that they had put back. They lost their house, they only had a couple of years left on their mortgage."
Ms Szombara and her parents ended up homeless for six weeks.
She added: "I was embarrassed and ashamed that I got my mum and dad involved... They worked all their days."
'Ripped family apart'
She said they only contacted the police after Clarkson was convicted of a fraudulent crime, committed before the couple met.
He was jailed for 42 months in February after being convicted of stealing £60,000 from Ms Szombara and her parents between 2010 and 2014.
But Ms Szombara believes the figure was closer to £97,000.
"My mum died before he was sentenced for this so she didn't get to see him being sent to prison," she said.
"It nearly ripped our family apart. I hate what he's done to my family."
Warning people to be on the alert, Ms Szombara said: "My advice would be to be really cautious with everybody.
"Check email addresses are related to the company. Throughout the four years we were together I never met his family so always check someone's background."
Police say romance fraud is largely unreported due to victims' feelings of embarrassment, lack of evidence or a feeling it might have been their fault.
Nevertheless, figures from April to December last year show the number of reported fraud incidents, including romance scams, increased by 21% from 6,106 the previous year to 7,398.
Officers are highlighting the type of fraud as part of a national acquisitive crime campaign, which will run for four weeks.
Their advice includes never sharing or exchanging personal information which can be used by fraudsters to obtain credit.
People are also being urged never to send money or bank details to someone they have met online.
Det Supt Nicola Shepherd said: "Criminals can be extremely convincing and they prey on people who are emotionally vulnerable, particularly online.
"It can be easy to get caught up with the attention you receive but it's important to stop and think if a stranger's actions are genuine."