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Romance fraud: Scammers move beyond dating websites to prey on innocent victims

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PREYING on players on games websites, using fake photos, and fabricating family emergencies. Police have listed just some of the ways romance fraudsters find their victims and scam them into sending hundreds or thousands of pounds.

Dyfed-Powys Police’s Economic Crime Team is urging people to have their wits about them as it deals with an increasing number of romance fraud cases as people look for friendship or love online.

As part of Dyfed-Powys Police’s INTACT campaign, a communication, education and enforcement campaign led by the force’s Serious Violence and Organised Crime Team, the potentially life-shattering consequences of falling foul of a romance fraud are being highlighted this month.

Fraud safeguarding officer Rebecca Jones said: “We have had victims who have lost their life’s savings, have had to sell their homes, and are completely destroyed after sending huge amounts of money to someone they thought they were in a relationship with.

“Aside from the financial aspect, these victims have lost trust in themselves and others, find it very difficult to open up about what they have been through, and feel totally isolated while trying to recover emotionally.”

Romance fraud is described as when someone creates a fake identity to enter into a relationship with a victim, with the intent to steal either funds or personal information. However, while this kind of crime is also known as a dating scam, relationships are not solely started through dating websites as is frequently believed.

“We do get a number of victims who have gone online to find romance, and have ended up being targeted by criminals,” Rebecca said.

“However, we are now finding that fraudsters are moving into different areas. We have had incidents where two people have met on a games website, where the victim had no intention of finding a partner, and even where a writer had posted work online and was contacted by a scammer who eventually asked for several thousands of pounds.

“As scammers constantly adapt the way they prey on victims, we are urging people to be cautious in all areas of their online lives.”

Despite using various types of websites to seek out unsuspecting victims, the majority of romance fraud incidents follow a similar pattern.

First, trust is gained and a relationship is built up. Then the scammer moves on to asking for money – claiming they have a family or medical emergency, or saying they will use the funds buy a flight ticket to visit their partner. Once this money has been sent, the criminal will keep coming up with new reasons for more money to be sent.

In two recent cases investigated by Dyfed-Powys Police, fraudsters have used photos of international models to set up fake accounts. In one instance, the scammer uploaded a photo of a model with her son, in an attempt to make their victim believe they had a family who needed financial help.

“We do find that victims can be lured in by attractive photos, and very often they do not suspect that these photos have been sourced online,” Rebecca said.

“We know it goes against people’s trusting instincts, but we would highly recommend putting any photos they are sent through a reverse image checker to find the original source. While this is not a fool proof solution, it does offer a layer of protection.”

The Economic Crime Team has also warned that once victims have cut off contact with a scammer, they will still try to find ways of getting in touch with new claims for needing money.

“One of the victims we were supporting continued to receive contact from a person claiming to be a doctor asking for money to cover medical bills, while another posed as a police officer in a series of Skype messages.

“We can’t be sure if the victim told the offender they had reported them, or if they became suspicious after all contact suddenly stopped, but it goes to show the lengths they will take to try and keep the scam going.”

The team also warned that romance fraud can move beyond sending money to the criminal, with victims becoming money mules or being coerced into sextortion.

DC Gareth Jordan said: “Money muling is where the victim is asked to have funds put into their bank account, which is then transferred to someone else. “This is a crime, and we have experienced victims becoming distraught at finding out they have unknowingly broken the law in having their bank account used in this way.

“Sextortion is where the victim is asked to send the criminal sexual videos or photographs of themselves, and then receive threats that these will be shared with family or friends if they do not pay. This can also have a devastating impact on the emotional and mental health of victims, who feel backed into a corner with nowhere to turn.”

While Dyfed-Powys Police has seen a rise in romance fraud reports over the past year, officers fear the impact of lockdowns and isolations through 2020 and the beginning of 2021 is yet to be seen.

“What we know is that people have been increasingly lonely during the Covid-19 pandemic,” said DC Jordan.

“People have been shielding, isolating and living along without their usual level of contact with family and friends. It is natural to crave human contact, and the first place a lot of people will have turned over the past year is to the internet.

“There has been an increase in the number of reports we have received, but we know that some scammers will spend months, or even years, almost grooming their victims, so the true impact is unknown at present.

“We understand how hard it can be to come to terms with learning that the person you’ve built a relationship with – sometimes over a number of years – isn’t the person they said they were. We speak to victims who are dealing with it totally alone for fear of telling friends or family what has happened. We have support mechanisms in place to help you through the investigation stage and beyond.”

Tips to protect yourself:

1. Be cautious when sharing personal details with potential dates: revealing your full name, date of birth and home address could lead to your identity being stolen.
2. Pick a reputable dating website and use the site’s messaging service. Fraudsters will try to convince you to quickly switch to social media or texting so there’s no evidence of them asking you for money.
3. Never send or receive money or give away your bank details to someone you’ve only met online, no matter how much you trust them or believe their story.

Tips to protect a loved one:

1. Ask questions about your loved one’s new relationship: does it sound like both people are sharing the same kind of information at a similar pace?
2. Ask if you can see their profile: does it look genuine? Do they have multiple photographs that are clearly of the same person? Do the photos look too posed, or is the person clearly a model?
3. Don’t be afraid to share your suspicions with police. You are looking out for your friend or family member, and want to keep them safe. We can help.

Spot the signs:

• You’ve struck up a relationship with someone online; they’re asking a lot of personal questions about you, but they’re not interested in telling you much about themselves.
• Fraudsters often claim that they have high ranking roles or busy, important jobs that keep them away from home for long periods of time. This is to avoid suspicion as to why they can’t meet in person.
• They invent a reason to ask for your help, using the emotional attachment you’ve built with them. Your relationship with them may often depend on you sending money.
• Their pictures are too perfect – they may have been stolen from an actor or model. A reverse image search can find photos that have been taken from somewhere else. Ask a tech-savvy friend or relative to help if unsure.

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Permit applications open for Tenby pedestrianisation scheme

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PEMBROKESHIRE COUNTY COUNCIL is now accepting applications for vehicle access during this year’s Pedestrianisation of Tenby.

The scheme, which is due to start on Monday, July 5 and conclude on Friday, September 10, will again see the walled town divided into three ‘zones’, each having varying degrees of vehicle access.

Whilst all necessary plans are being put in place for it to start and finish on the above dates, the scheme will remain under constant review in light of Government guidance relating to Covid-19, and the Council will provide any updates as necessary.

Possession of an ‘access permit’ does not provide any exemption from Government restrictions, and any regulations relating to travel and the occupation of holiday accommodation or second homes must be observed at all times.

Following the success of last year, the permit application process will continue online, with paper application forms and guidance notes no longer being delivered to residents and businesses.

The application form and guidance notes are available from pembrokeshire.gov.uk/tenby-pedestrianisation

Residents and business within Tenby are encouraged to complete the application process as soon as possible, to ensure that there is sufficient time for the application to be processed.

Permits will be issued approximately 7-10 days prior to the start of the scheme.

For enquiries, e-mail tenby.pedestrian@pembrokeshire.gov.uk

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Join the Dyfed-Powys Police and Crime Panel as an independent member

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THE Dyfed Powys Police and Crime Panel is looking for two members to join them in their work to support and challenge the Dyfed Powys Police and Crime Commissioner.

The Panel is made of up of members nominated by Carmarthenshire, Ceredigion, Pembrokeshire and Powys county councils along with at least two independent members.

Opportunities have now arisen for two independent members to join the Panel and carry out key statutory roles that will support the Commissioner exercise his role effectively.

Members will be expected to attend and take part in regular meetings and take part in decision making, creating reports and making recommendations to the Commissioner.

They will review the Commissioner’s annual draft Police and Crime Plan and annual draft budget, review and scrutinise his decisions and actions, and if necessary review the proposed appointment or removal of the Chief Constable and other senior police force appointments.

Applicants will need to demonstrate that they can take a balanced and objective approach in supporting the Panel and the Commissioner, make strategic and well-informed decisions, and interpret and question financial, statistical and performance related information.

They will also need to be able to act as a ‘critical friend’, challenging views or proposals for change constructively.

Applications close on May 31, and appointments to the Panel will be made until October 31, 2024. 

For further information, visit www.dppoliceandcrimepanel.wales

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Successful Fire Service and Health Board partnership to enhance COVID-19 vaccine roll out comes to end

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TUESDAY 11 May 2021 marked the end of a hugely successful partnership between Mid and West Wales Fire and Rescue Service and Hywel Dda University Health Board, initiated to enhance the roll out of the COVID-19 vaccine to the communities of Carmarthenshire, Ceredigion and Pembrokeshire.

Since February, Community Safety Staff from Mid and West Wales Fire and Rescue Service have transported 125 passengers over 9450 miles to ensure they were able to receive their COVID-19 vaccination.

Chris Davies, Chief Fire Officer for Mid and West Wales Fire and Rescue Service said: “Recognising the configuration of our Service, the areas we cover and indeed the people we employee, this seemed an ideal opportunity for us to widen our response to the pandemic and support our partners in safeguarding our communities.

“Whilst we already collaborate with the Welsh Ambulance Service Trust, this opportunity enabled us to expand our assistance further within the health arena. This partnership with Hywel Dda University Health Board was the first of its kind for Fire and Rescue Services in Wales and paved the way for a number of similar partnerships for us and the other Fire and Rescue Services in Wales.

“I am extremely proud of our staff who have participated in this collaboration and have made a huge difference to the lives of so many people. Their contribution has without doubt had a positive impact on our response to this global pandemic”.

Mydrian Harries, Corporate Head of Prevention and Protection for Mid and West Wales Fire and Rescue Service, coordinated the Service’s response to this call for assistance.

“Our communities are at the heart of our core business. Knowing we were in a position to make an impact, we put in place a robust solution in record time, to not only ensure the safety and wellbeing of our staff, but to also safeguard those who were eligible for the COVID-19 vaccination, but may have had barriers preventing them from attending their appointments.

“Using this partnership as template within which we could expand, we have since been able to offer our assistance to other Health Boards across the Service area. Indeed, a group of 10 vaccine heroes from our Service have joined Powys Teaching Health Board’s vaccination team, playing their part in distributing vaccines at mass vaccination sites in Newtown and Builth Wells. This is another fantastic example of how working together has been vital in our ongoing response to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

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