LAST Christmas Sharon Jones excitedly rushed to Gatwick Airport to pick up her long-haul boyfriend.
As she drove to the sound of festive love songs, her stomach danced with excitement as she thought about meeting her man for the first time and spending the holidays together.
Presents twinkled under the tree at home and Sharon beamed with pride as she thought about his face as he opened them.
But at the airport minutes rolled into hours and there was still no sign of Ben at the gates.
Worried, she flagged down an airline worker and asked what was causing the delay.
To her horror, the flight number did not exist — and nor did her Romeo.
Like thousands of women every year, Sharon, 62, from Croydon, South London, had fallen victim to a cruel online romance scam, parting with thousands of her savings only to discover her man was a fraud.
From January to November this year more than 6,000 British lonely hearts reported losses of £63million to Action Fraud about fake foreign boyfriends.
And men are increasingly falling victim to the fraudsters too.
Anti-scam crusader Ruth Grover, 64, says that the number of cases will rocket over the festive season.
Speaking exclusively to The Sun, she said: “Scammers love December because it’s a romantic time of year and they pretend they will come and spend Christmas with their victim.
“The scams usually come to light because these women will go to the airport to collect them and will be shocked to discover they’re not there.
“They would have given the scammers thousands of pounds to fly over for the holiday, believing it would be spent on booking flights.
“I will spend Christmas Day glued to my laptop as dozens of people get in touch, devastated that their online lover doesn’t exist.”
It seemed too good to be true and I knew I was ripe for the picking — over 50 and a widow
Ruth, a retired Navy radio operator from Hartlepool, turned detective 12 years ago after romance fraudsters targeted her after her husband died.
She has since helped thousands of men and women from all over the world who have been cruelly swindled out of “millions”.
She recalled: “According to these men online, I was the most gorgeous widow in the world. I was flattered and enjoyed the attention.
"But it seemed too good to be true and I knew I was ripe for the picking — over 50 and a widow.
“So I did some investigating and found out my gorgeous military man was actually a scammer in West Africa who had stolen Western soldiers’ pictures to lure me in.
“I was furious and fired up. How dare they try to scam me out of thousands?
“After that I decided to help other people who have fallen victim to these scams.”
And it is not just elderly victims the heartless scammers are targeting — it is young people too.
Ruth added: “No one is safe. I have clients in their 30s and clients in their 80s.”
Barbara Williams, a 38-year-old single mum and cleaner from Glasgow, was targeted on Instagram in October two weeks after her father died.
She recalled: “I was in a vulnerable place and lonely.
“I’d been single for a long time and this man was my little ray of sunshine.
"He told me he was a US soldier stationed in Turkey and kept telling me I was beautiful and he was in love with me.
“He said he wanted to come over for Christmas and spend the holidays with me. I was so excited. He said I would have to email his Army commissioner for permission.
“He gave me an email address and the commissioner replied saying I’d have to pay.
"He sent a list of prices for how long he could stay — starting at $1,500 (£1,100) for one month and up to $3,000 (£2,200) for four months.
“I went to my bank and got a loan for £1,500 and tried to transfer it but the bank stopped the payment because it looked suspicious and closed my account.
“He was really angry and said I was cheating on him. It was heartbreaking.
“I wanted to prove I wasn’t and ended up sending him money via Apple, Google and Amazon cards.
'GUILTY AND ASHAMED'
“Soon I was spending £50 here and £100 there and it began to add up.
“Over several months I ended up spending more than £4,000 on him.”
Barbara, who earns £1,000 a month, was working overtime and borrowing from friends to pay him.
But she became suspicious and two weeks ago it came to a head.
She said: “I demanded he call me on video as he had never done it.
“He said he had a bad connection. After that I cut all ties.”
To her horror, the scammer threatened to post online nude photos that Barbara had sent him unless she transferred more money.
“I felt guilty and ashamed,” she continues.
“I was too embarrassed to go to the police for help.”
People said, ‘You’re stupid for letting this happen, it’s your fault’. It was horrible and I felt suicidal
Mum Elspet Wilson, 69, a retired nurse from Co Durham, lost £10,000 of her pension to “Brian”, who claimed to be a British soldier based in war-torn Syria.
She explained: “I’d been single for eight years and was on the dating app Badoo.
"When I saw his photo I thought, ‘Ooooh, I wouldn’t mind meeting him’. He was handsome and looked to be in his late 40s.”
Soon “Brian” was asking her to wire money to get a package home to her.
Elspet recalled: “He said he had a box of belongings which he needed help to get back to the UK.
“He said once the box was back he would stay with me for a holiday when he was on leave.
“He was very convincing and I didn’t twig anything was amiss. He said he knew a diplomat who was coming over to the UK and would be able to bring the box.
"He wanted me to help with the money to pay for the diplomat’s air fares and courier fees.”
“Brian” love-bombed Elspet and sent her roses and chocs. He also told her he could not wait to marry her and buy their dream house.
She added: “Friends were saying it was a scam but I would get mad and say, ‘No — it’s not, it’s real’. So I sent him £2,000 and took out a loan to cover it.
"He told me the courier was in Ghana, so I’d have to send the money there.”
After ransacking her pension pot to keep up with demands, Elspet sent him more than £10,000.
She continued: “He kept asking for more but I’d run out of money.
“He was upset and said the diplomat had been shot and I’d need to send more. At this point I was getting suspicious.”
Wanting answers, she called the Foreign Office, which broke the news that it was a scam.
She added: “People said, ‘You’re stupid for letting this happen, it’s your fault’. It was horrible and I felt suicidal.”
She has now found love with a man she met on a dating website.
Ruth uploads videos on to her Instagram and Facebook pages — called scamhaters.united — to warn others about the dangers of love scammers over Christmas.
Signs your dream date is a conman
PRIVATE detective Jack Roberts, of globalinvestigations.co.uk, has these tips on how to avoid a romance scammer.
- Don’t send money to anyone you do not know. End of.
- Look out for strong, very early signs of love and affection, poor English skills and stories of being a widower, personal or family health issues and having no family.
- Scammers will look for excuses to not connect in normal ways. They will claim to have jobs that restrict contact, such as military personnel or oil rig work.
- Video chats are being faked, connection issues are used as a regular excuse.
- Don’t think they must be genuine if no signs of scams become apparent for weeks or months.
- Don’t accept gifts or cards or give out your home address. Never give your bank details and don’t agree to send money on their behalf – receiving money from a scammer can be money laundering.
- Be suspicious of everything until you have a genuine OFFLINE connection.
- Learn how to reverse Google search a picture they have sent you.
- Receiving a so-called “passport” from someone is not normal and does not mean they are real.
- Ask a friend for their advice on any connections if you can.
- Research and Google their story – if it sounds unbelievable it will be 99 per cent of the time.
- Call a professional company such as ours to get help. Don’t feel embarrassed as many people are taken in by these clever lies.
- There are people to turn to, including the Samaritans, Victim Support and Citizens Advice. You are not alone.
She has a team of nine women in the UK, US, Australia and Europe who help with her work.
They also help the people whose pictures have been used, usually soldiers, who often end up getting abuse on social media.
Ruth said: “The scammers are getting more innovative and will use innocent apps to find their prey, like Fitbit, Scrabble and Words With Friends — anything with instant chat.
"They’ll befriend them then move the conversation on to WhatsApp or email.”
Jack Roberts, a private detective at globalinvestigations.co.uk, said there is even a training school in Accra, Ghana’s capital, where young men learn how to con lonely women.
He said: “They are young, well spoken, computer literate, usually male teenagers.
“They’ll use unregistered laptops and learn English and how to catfish.
“They even have elocution lessons and flaunt their ill-gotten gains for all to see.
"They are easy to spot in their conspicuous gold jewellery, cruising around in their unlicensed fast cars, loud music blaring.”
While the heartless tactics will pull the “Ghanaian graduates” out of poverty, their devastated victims will be left the losers in love — and wealth.
Adam Cam, 36
ADAM CAM, 36, an Instagram creator from Stratford, East London, has been contacted by more than 1,000 women over two years believing he is their online lover.
He says: “It’s very frustrating. They’ll comment under my posts on Instagram, ‘You owe me £5k’ and ‘Don’t trust him he’s a scammer’.
"It can ruin my career as I have to explain that my pics have been catfished.
“I’ve even had angry women contact my ex-girlfriend in the past saying I’m cheating on her with them.”
Kaya Corbridge, 23
MODEL Kaya Corbridge, 23, from Colne, Lancs, has a popular Only Fans account and tells how fraudsters “catfished” her identity to con victims on dating sites.
She says: “In one case a criminal used all my pictures and videos and stole my ID to build a relationship with a guy which went on for six months.
“He was from America and at one point had bought plane tickets to meet a girl he thought was me.
“The lengths the fraudsters go to are incredible. I was so shocked.
“In another case, one criminal made out I was a lesbian looking for a female partner.
“I’ve now discovered it was most likely a guy trying to lure girls to meet them, which is terrifying.”
James Elliott, 32
FORMER British soldier James Elliott, 32, has had more than 100 women contact him after his stolen Army pictures were used in scams.
He says: “One woman went to an airport believing she was going to meet me and started messaging me on Instagram, saying, ‘I’m waiting to pick up you and your daughter’.
“This woman had lost thousands believing I was stuck in Afghanistan with my year-old daughter and she had been sending the scammer – who had stolen my identity – money to get me home.”
James, now a wellbeing coach who lives with girlfriend Leah in Redditch, Worcs, added: “I get two to four women a day contacting me.
“Some are very angry as they think I’ve taken their money.
"It’s not fair my daughter’s pics are taken too.
"It makes me angry but it won’t change until people become more educated about scams.”
- To contact Ruth, see scamhatersunited.com
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