London: Hundreds of thousands of people in Britain may have been hit or duped by online romance scams, far more than previous estimates.
The study undertaken by Monica Whitty and Tom Buchanan, psychologists at the Universities of Leicester and Westminster, is probably the first formal academic analysis of the pervasive scam.
Criminals often set up fake identities on dating and social networking sites, using stolen photographs (of models or army officers) and pretend to develop a romantic relationship with their victim.
Such scamsters have persuaded many to part with large sums of money before their suspicions are aroused, often on emotive or humanitarian grounds, according to a Leicester statement.
Even when victims cannot, or will not, send money, scammers involve them in laundering money by asking them to accept money into their bank accounts.
Researchers surveyed over 2,000 people through an online YouGov survey and estimated from the results that over 200,000 British citizens have fallen victim to the crime.
"This is a concern not solely because people are losing large sums of money to these criminals, but also because of the psychological impact experienced by victims of this crime," said Whitty, professor of psychology at Leicester.
"It is our view that the trauma caused by this scam is worse than any other, because of the 'double hit' experienced by the victims - loss of monies and a 'romantic relationship'," Whitty added.
"It may well be that the shame and upset experienced by the victims deters them from reporting the crime. We thus believe new methods of reporting the crime are needed," added Whitty.
According to the Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA), romance fraud is organised crime, usually operating from outside Britain.
Colin Woodcock, SOCA's senior manager for fraud prevention, said: "SOCA has worked hard to understand the nature of this crime and how it can be tackled, and this study provides further insights into the extent to which it is affecting people."
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