With increasing numbers of people turning to the internet to find love, instances of romance fraud and scams has risen exponentially. We talk to Sarah* about her online blackmail experience.
Unless you’re savvy enough to protect your profiles and personal information, it’s never been easier for complete strangers to find out everything about you, without even talking to you. Are you on Facebook? Do you know who can see what? Do you realise that your photos have geographical detail embedded in them unless you turn it off on your phone?
How about online dating – have you chatted to people and told them about yourself and your life, without realising that the person you’re talking to could be completely false; could even have multiple accounts and be harvesting lots of different types of information about you in different ways?
We don’t mean to scare you. Well, yes maybe we do a bit. Because it’s easy to walk unsuspecting into the world of online romance and get scammed unless you’re careful. And that’s not to say of course that you can’t get conned meeting someone randomly in a pub; but your profiles, the information contained in your conversations online – all this offers a far greater opportunity for the swindler.
Sarah recently had a terrifying experience with an online romance fraudster who met her online, and ended up blackmailing her after persuading her to send him revealing sexual photos. She spoke to us about how it unfolded.
How did he first get in touch?
He contacted me on Facebook messenger saying he had been looking for someone else and that he’d seen my picture. I was flattered of course, and we ended up chatting.
What was the opening gambit?
He asked if he could come down and take me out for lunch. Who doesn’t love a nice lunch?
And then asked you for more information about yourself?
Yes. He asked about family and children but I don’t recall any other digging. But looking back I believe that he was probably someone that I had already been in contact with via an online dating site who I stopped having contact with because I’d started to feel uncomfortable about him. I’d gone through his Facebook profile and found earlier posts that sounded familiar, so I think he would already have had a lot of information about me from when we were chatting before. But he’d used a different name on the dating site, so I just didn’t realise it was the same person.
Looking back, is it obvious now that he was trying to gain information about your life with which to blackmail you with?
Actually it wasn’t. He did ask what I did for a job and marital status, but I realised afterwards that a lot of the information he had about me must have come from when we were chatting on the dating site. Maybe I’m too trusting, but I really didn’t know what was coming.
How long did you chat before he started to ask you to send pictures?
We chatted for about four weeks and then he was going to come down for the weekend. It felt safe. He sent photos first, which made me feel like he was genuine. I kept asking for his phone number so that we could talk but that was never forthcoming which should have sounded warning bells but it didn’t. He was chatty and flirty and I ended up sending him some very inadvisable photos – definitely not the sort of thing you’d want your family to see, let’s just say that.
Tell us about when it started to go wrong
The tone of his messages changed once I had sent my photos. He demanded a huge payment not to show my friends and family the photos, and sent me the list of all my contacts on Messenger. I was devastated and really frightened and so terrified he would expose me I actually offered him a payment plan but he was just adamant he wanted £100,000! Which was ridiculous. He said I should get a loan on my house to pay him. Extraordinarily, he said he himself had been scammed so he justified himself by saying he was owed that money.
So you called in the police. Tell us about how that unfolded
I was worried sick and felt helpless. It was so embarrassing that I didn’t know who to talk to. But eventually I did speak to a friend that I really trusted and they suggested getting the police involved. I contacted the ActionFraud agency but as I hadn’t lost any money they said to contact the police direct, which I did.
How did the police respond?
They were truly amazing, and didn’t make me feel stupid or embarrassed to talk to them. They also treated it as an emergency and gave me a direct number to call, because by then he had become really threatening. I had an email address for him and they emailed him a really stiff letter about blackmail, and said what the consequences would be if he persisted.
How did the blackmailer respond?
He sent some very vicious emails and messages, which was horrible. But ultimately he disappeared and I heard nothing else from him.
Any advice you could give other people about this kind of situation and earning signs to look out for?
Looking back I should have been suspicious as I have a lot of privacy settings on my Facebook account so he shouldn’t have been able to find me or know so much about me. I should have persisted in getting his number too – if he wasn’t genuine, why wouldn’t he want to talk to me? Sending photos to someone I hadn’t met was a really daft thing to do – a real fit of madness. In fact I don’t think I would do that again now, even for someone I had met. The worry that my friends and family could have seen them was truly awful – it made me really ill for a while.
TOP TIPS FOR STAYING SAFE
- Think about the information you give out – until you absolutely trust someone, don’t tell them where you work, where you live, details about your family and friends… keep your personal details private.
- And that includes photographs, especially with your face in them – and especially if your geodata is still enabled on your phone (see next point).
- Be aware of the information your phone gives out. If you’re sharing photos, turn off the geodata associated with the pictures, and make sure you’re not trackable on the various platforms you use.
- Check your online presence. How secure is your social media? If you’re not sure how to work round the madness that are some of the settings, get someone trustworthy to help you.
- And keep an eye on it – platforms like Facebook change their settings frequently. Again, maybe get some help if all this sounds like a hot mess to have to work out.
- It’s old advice but worth repeating. If you’re meeting up with someone you’ve met online, tell a friend where you’re going, and text or call them once you’re there and you know it’s safe.
- More than ever – be vigilant. Don’t take anything at face value, don’t give out information about yourself, don’t get sucked into ‘lending’ money, for anything! Always question everything
If you are worried about anything or you’re being blackmailed, coerced, threatened – call the Police on 101
*Sarah’s name has been changed