UK Finance is warning the public to stay vigilant ahead of Valentine’s Day after romance scams rose by 20% in 2020.

Romance scams are when a fraudster adopts a fake persona online in order to convince a victim that they are in a romantic relationship, before duping them into sending money or sharing personal information.

Criminals will often construct elaborate stories, such as needing money for a medical emergency or to buy plane tickets, for financial gain.

According to UK Finance, which is the trade association for the UK banking and financial services sector, the frequency of bank transfer romance scams increased by 20% between January and November 2020, with the total value of these scams rising by 12% to £18.5m.

This rise in romance scams has been attributed to a growing number of people turning to online dating and spending more time on the internet during the Covid-19 pandemic.

According to the Online Dating Association , over 2.3 million Brits used dating apps during the UK’s first lockdown.

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The financial impact of romance scams can be significant, with the average loss per victim reported to UK Finance members reaching £7,850.

UK Finance estimates that the actual amount lost to romance scams may be higher than their figures suggest, with some criminals opting for methods other than bank transfers, such as gift cards, vouchers, physical gifts such as laptops or phones, and even gaining direct access to a victim’s bank account. The total reported losses for 2020 equate to over £68m.

In order to avoid falling victim to romance scams, UK Finance advises individuals to stop and think before transferring money to people they meet online, challenges requests for money and contact their bank immediately if they suspect a scam has taken place.

Pauline Smith, head of Action Fraud, said:

“Last year, we sadly saw criminals exploit the coronavirus pandemic as a means to commit fraud, and romance fraud was no exception. The national lockdowns, and other restrictions on our social lives, implemented because of the coronavirus outbreak, have meant more people have been seeking companionship online and this has undoubtedly affected the number of reports we have seen.

“It’s important to say that most online dating sites, social media sites and gaming apps are perfectly safe. However, any online platform that allows you to connect with and talk to other people could be targeted by romance fraudsters so it’s important to remain vigilant.

“If you think you’ve been a victim of romance fraud, please don’t feel ashamed or embarrassed – you are not alone. Anyone can fall victim to fraud, but it’s important that contact your bank immediately and report it to Action Fraud.”

Read More: Scarlet Widow: The romance scam group preying on the disabled and divorced.