Crime

It’s not just the Tinder Swindler – sinister romance scammers are ruining LGBT+ lives

Josh Milton February 11, 2022
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Illustration of a naked man taking a selfie

Gay men are being extorted for money. (PinkNews)

Netflix’s The Tinder Swindler has many on high alert for romance scams – but for many in the LGBT+ community, it came too late.

Bradley was only looking for love. A 27-year-old living in London, he did what any gay man does and joined a dating website.

Then he met Alfie. They exchanged mobile phone numbers, swapped photos, but hadn’t yet met. Still, Bradley thought, it was going well.

Alfie wanted to visit Bradley in London. He said he cares for his mother, so where would he get the money for the train fare? Bradley offered to pay – after all, how could he not sympathise? Without a second thought, he transferred £150.

Alife missed the train, he told Bradley over Whatsapp, and the ticket was non-refundable. The text messages quickly petered out and Bradley became concerned for Alfie’s wellbeing.

“So Bradley asked me to find Alfie,” recalled Alison Marsh, private investigator at Miss AM Investigations. “And I found him. He was fine. But Alfie was a nasty little weasel.”

In fact, the man Bradley thought he knew was an invention. ‘Alfie’ used a patchwork of fake social media profiles and photographs to create an alluring lie to scam Bradley and countless others. He was a romance fraudster.

In recent years, con artists have found a new target – those looking for love, fun and everything in between on dating apps such as Grindr and Tinder.

With the Netflix documentary Tinder Swindler raising awareness for these so-called romance scams, Marsh and other experts stressed to PinkNews that anyone – regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity – can be a victim.

“Bradley was hurt,” Marsh said, “whether gay, straight or whatever, people go on dating apps not only for a bit of slap and tickle – they join to find love. They get sucked in.”

What does a romance scam look like?

Many romance scams play the same way, according to Action Fraud, Britain’s reporting centre for fraud and cybercrime.

Crooks, usually using fake profiles or stolen identities, attract unsuspecting victims by leading them on across long periods. They earn the person’s trust only to abuse it.

No wonder, said Marsh. “If [the scammer] has got everything you want, everything you like, they mould themselves into your shadow, people think: ‘This is this person for me.’

“By then, they think that person is the love of their life and they think they’re going to be together.”

First comes the tragic reason why they can’t meet – maybe they live hundreds of miles away – then comes the finale: they ask for cash, such as covering the cost for travel or a lost bank card, before promptly vanishing without a trace.

Such acts, typically carried out on online platforms such as Facebook or Tinder, have long been a concern to the authorities, especially when the perpetrators ask for people’s personal information, such as their passports.

Topless man with his eyes covered by a black streak
(Pexels)

But the problem has swelled in recent years. In 2019, Britons looking for love were robbed of £7.9 million by romantic tricksters; last year, it surged to £15.1 million, banking trade association UK Finance found.

According to Which?, the average cost of a romance scam is just under £10,000.

Action Fraud said that 8,863 cases were reported to the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau between November 2020 and October 2021, up from 6,968 the previous year. The real number is likely even higher, given that shame and stigma stops many from reporting it.

Typically, the period between Christmas and Valentine’s Day is when people are most susceptible to romance scams – the pandemic, when people were lonely and meeting in person was difficult, if not impossible, made things even worse.

Is it different for LGBT+ people at all?

A spokesperson for Action Fraud, hosted by the City of London Police, said that law enforcement does not record the sexual orientation of romance fraud victims.

However, Wayne May, who founded the internet forum Scam Survivors, said that in his experience, the financial amount lost “tends to be higher” among LGBT+ victims. May has also seen many queer people threatened with outing unless they pay scammers.

Grindr has warned that scams may even include people claiming to be sugar daddies offering cash from stolen credit cards to sextortion, where scam artists blackmail users for funds. As well as the financial impact, romance scams can also have a heavy psychological toll.

While many scams are conducted entirely online, others, like the case of the Tinder Swindler, involve physical relationships.

Only recently was Anouar Sabbar, a 28-year-old from south London, jailed for five years after swindling at least £2,360 from vulnerable men.

After meeting men on Grindr and having consensual sex with them, he would say he was in fact an escort and demand money from them.

He threatened to tell one victim’s girlfriend about their encounter. Others were threatened with violence.

Mugshot of Anouar Sabbar
Anouar Sabbar. (Metropolitan Police Service)

One of Scam Survivors’ most costly recorded cons was the case of Stanislav Lukashov, a 20-year-old webcam model based in St. Petersburg, Russia. He befriended a highly-paid doctor, who ended up sending him thousands of dollars each month for 20 months.

In return, Lukashov showered the doctor with professions of love and commitments to live together in the US, the victim recalled in a blog post.

He even took out a loan to send Lukashov $42,000 (£31,000) to purchase a Mercedes C55 AMG – and then he disappeared.

Sadly, scammers in the vein of the Tinder Swindler aren’t going anywhere soon. “Grindr and the other sites should be safe places, but they’re not,” said Marsh.

“You just have to be diligent – don’t take someone at face value, have a video call to know what they look like and don’t tell someone you don’t know where you live.

“It’s just simple rules,” she added, “but when you’re in love, then you think that doesn’t apply, don’t you?”

If you or someone you know has been a victim of romance fraud in Britain, contact your bank immediately and report it to Action Fraud on 0300 123 2040 or via actionfraud.police.uk.

If you are in Scotland, please report to Police Scotland directly by calling 101.

For those in America, please file a complaint with the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3).

More: Grindr, Tinder

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