WIDOW Dena White was looking for love after being on her own for several years. But the 52 year old from West Yorkshire ended up being scammed by a Ghanaian fraudster which left her penniless.
Dena started internet dating after the death of her husband a number of years ago, following a couple of false starts she finally met someone she thought she shared a real connection with.
He called himself Steve Moon, and claimed to be an American divorcee and retired army officer. They were soon spending hours every day emailing and instant messaging. "He said he loved me and he wanted to come here and see how we got on", Dena explained. She had no reason to feel suspicious, but then the scammer struck.
Mrs White said:'Of course I was wary but everything he told me seemed to check out. The US were sending retired officers back to Iraq to help train the police and I even checked the address he gave me in the States and a widower called Steve Moon was registered there with a son.
'We started chatting on instant messengers for hours every day. He'd send me poetry. It sounds silly now but we were in love. He was going to come to the UK when he was done in Iraq and then I was planning to have a holiday in America to be with him. It seemed very romantic.'
After eight months, in August 2009, 'Steve' asked her if he could have a parcel containing his war memorabilia and medals, delivered to her house by a diplomat.
Mrs White agreed and spoke to the man she believed to be a diplomat on the phone several times before being told that customs had impounded the parcel and it would cost £3,000 to retrieve.
"We'd been communicating for about a month and then he said to me, 'I have to tell you, I'm not actually in America at the moment, I'm in Iraq'," Dena said.
The scammer went on to spin Dena a complicated story and eventually persuaded her to part with some money. She remortgaged her house and sent him everything she had - £45,000. But 'Steve' didn't stop there, telling Dena he was being held hostage in Iraq he claimed he need £120,000 to pay off his captors.
She agreed to pay the bill, however weeks later she was told it would cost around £45,000 for the parcel to be changed into her name so she could receive it on his behalf.
'I was worried but he didn't give me time to think it through properly. That's what they do. I remortgaged the house. He promised to repay me as soon as he was back in the US and I thought I was protecting myself by transferring the money through a bank.'
It was at this point that police told her the truth about the internet scam.
'At first I couldn't believe it,' said Mrs White, a former distribution manager. After further internet research she realised the profile picture of her 'new love' was actually a high-ranking soldier whose image was used for an advertising campaign.
Mrs White, who is seriously ill with COPD, a chronic lung disease, was forced to sell her home and downsize to a property which she now also stands to lose because of the crippling debts she has been left with.
The man said to have conned her, 31-year-old Ghanaian Maurice Asola Fadola, was arrested after allegedly scamming at least £771,000 from five women.
'Because I am now seen as an easy target my details have been sold on to other fraudsters so I'm regularly contacted by scammers.
'Now I talk to them to find out what new methods and technology they are using to help warn others. I would just tell people to meet people in person and never ever send money to anyone who contacts you online.'
Colin Woodcock from the Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA) said:'In a romance fraud the vulnerability is that the victim is someone looking for love, so the fraudster knows how to exploit them. But we're not just talking about vulnerable people being caught by this. Intelligent people are duped as well.'
Just days before Dena sold her house police stepped in, they'd been tip-off anonymously. They broke the devastating news: Steve Moon had never existed. He was a fictional character created by a scammer, using photographs stolen from the internet. The Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA) traced Dena's payments, and those of other victims, to the account of a Ghanaian businessman, Asola Fadola.
SOCA, together with Ghana CID and Ghana National Fraud Office found Fadola after months of investigation, he was finally arrested earlier this year. But Dena is still suffering the consequences of the scam and faces the possibility of having to sell her house to cope.
Targeting the vulnerable.
IIn the UK, SOCA has a special team dedicated to tackling this type of fraud, they work closely with Ghana Post, Ghana CID and Ghana National Fraud Office.
Colin Woodcock, MBE a senior manager at SOCA says romance scammers target the lonely and the vulnerable. He says scammers are willing to devote hours to cultivating their victims before asking for money. "They are clever, clever people and they are very entrepreneurial," he said. "…there's lots of conversations that go on for weeks and even months and they have to remember all of that."
When snaring online victims scammers will lift pictures of attractive people from the internet and claim it is a photograph of them. Colin explained that they often ask for smaller amounts of money initially, before persuading their targets to part with larger sums.
However people duped by the romance scam could even be risking far more frightening consequences than just losing money, according to Colin. "You could end up being kidnapped," he said. "That's happened. People have come here (Ghana) and been held until they've paid money."
Are you being scammed?
If you think you've been a victim of fraud, you can contact Action Fraud - the UK's national fraud reporting centre. You will get a crime reference number and information on victim support. Action Fraud also offers information on how to protect yourself against becoming a victim. Find Action Fraud at www.actionfraud.org.uk or call 0300 123 2040. Please note that the BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites.
SOCA also has these scam-busting tips for anyone considering using dating sites or singles columns:
Be suspicious of anyone you have not met in person asking you to send money abroad. Even a cheque for a small amount can provide fraudsters with your bank details and can be altered and used in other fraudulent ways.
Speak to them online via a webcam and ask yourself whether this is the same person you have been chatting to online or by email. Tell someone trustworthy where you are going and plan regular contacts. Agree what they should do if you miss a contact.