Page last updated at 14:17 GMT, Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Romance fraud alert after Briton kidnapped in Africa

Hands on a keyboard
Criminal gangs target people on dating websites

The dangers of online romance with people abroad have been highlighted by police after a Briton was kidnapped in West Africa.

The online "friend" was the creation of criminals who imprisoned the victim for four days until a ransom was paid.

Criminal gangs create fictitious online profiles or send unsolicited emails or letters, often with fake photographs.

The Serious Organised Crime Agency (Soca) said romance fraud was "a vicious and manipulative crime".

It urged people to remain cautious while conducting online relationships with strangers.

Australian, Belgian and German nationals are thought to have been kidnapped as a result of romance fraud, although this is the first reported occasion when the victim was British, according to Soca.

Romance frauds are damaging enough, draining people's money and damaging their confidence - but the possibility of kidnap is a sinister development
Colin Woodcock
Soca fraud expert

The Briton was assaulted during the imprisonment.

Soca said romance fraud was one of many scams designed to trick people into parting with money.

A great deal of effort goes into gaining the victim's trust and individuals can be completely unaware that they have been targeted by criminals.

Once trust has been created, the fraudster pretends to be in urgent need of money and many victims have been persuaded to part with large sums before their suspicions are aroused. Some frauds go on for months, and even years.

Soca said work is under way to tackle this type of fraud in Nigeria and Ghana.

The body's Anti Kidnap and Extortion Unit is also training officers abroad to help them deal with kidnaps effectively.

Soca fraud expert Colin Woodcock said the issue was a "sensitive subject" and a sense of embarrassment meant there is "significant under-reporting by victims".

Same-sex romance

He said: "Romance frauds are damaging enough, draining people's money and damaging their confidence. But the possibility of kidnap is a sinister development.

"In the case of same-sex romance frauds there is the added threat in some countries of laws against homosexuality. Criminals use the fear of legal repercussions to make victims feel unsafe in going to the authorities, or even to extort more money."

Soca said anyone considering using dating websites or singles columns should be suspicious of people they have not met who ask for money to be sent abroad.

It also advised people to speak to the individual online via a webcam and check whether their answers are consistent with what has been said before.

Those who know someone planning to travel abroad to meet the person they have met online should help them to assess the risks.

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