Online daters are being warned about the dangers of fake celebrity profiles after a Nottinghamshire woman was duped out of thousands of pounds by a romance fraudster posing as TV chef James Martin.
The woman believed she was exchanging messages with the ITV star via Facebook and lost about £5,000 in the scam.
Reports of romance fraud have soared in recent years but the true extent is unknown as many victims are too embarrassed to come forward.
Twelve cases were reported to Nottinghamshire Police in September, with a further 11 cases reported to the force in August.
Of these cases, three were categorised as celebrity impersonator scams, also called ‘catfishing’. It involves fraudsters creating and curating convincing profiles to deceive and lure in dedicated fans.
In the James Martin catfishing example, the woman ignored three messages before the scammer managed to convince her he was the TV chef and coerced the woman into lending him money, which she didn’t get back.
The second example involved a vulnerable woman who was conned into purchasing and transferring Steam Gift Cards after believing she’d been talking to Il Divo singer Urs Bühler for two months.
And a third woman was tricked into believing she was communicating with Take That frontman Gary Barlow on TikTok. She was coerced into sending explicit images which the trickster threatened to share if she didn’t pay him money. She refused, blocked the person and thankfully nothing has happened since – although the episode left her upset and anxious.
Fraud protect officers have visited all three victims to provide advice and support.
Detective Sergeant Tara Clapperton, of Nottinghamshire Police’s fraud prevention team, explained how typical celebrity impersonator romance scams work. She said:
“These scammers exploit fans’ trust and enthusiasm to perpetrate impostor scams, aiming to illicitly gain financial benefits, personal data, or even install malicious software such as malware or ransomware on their victims’ devices.
“The scammers will usually target victims on social media platforms, particularly Facebook, or dating apps, such as Tinder. But they might quickly try to move the conversation onto another private messaging platform, like WhatsApp.
“Typically they will come across as very caring and attentive, messaging back and forth – sometimes over a period of months – to build trust and give the impression that the relationship is genuine.
“The fraudster may have scoured social profiles to help persuade their victim that they are the perfect match based on shared interests or personal circumstances. Often they will claim to be living or working abroad to explain why they can’t meet in person. They might also invent reasons why they can’t turn their camera on during calls.
“Eventually they will start to tell stories about family or legal issues, business problems or medical bills. They might appear reluctant to accept any help at first, but this is all part of the con.
“Amounts could be small to begin with, but over time they convince their victim to send more and more money.”
Often scammers will use the comment sections of posts on the celebrity’s verified social media profiles to find potential victims before striking up a conversation with them via private messages.
These initially seemingly innocent conversations and, over time, lead to requests for money.
DS Clapperton said the number of victims emphasised how sophisticated romance scams had become. She said:
“A lot of people hear about these scams and think ‘I wouldn’t be taken in by that’. But these scams are clever and that’s why it’s really important people exercise vigilance communicating with others online.
“It’s not dissimilar to grooming. Offenders will groom victims and it can happen over quite a long period of time.
“They tell convincing lies and it means that while victims think they are falling in love, they’re actually falling for a scam.
“Online dating can be a fun and empowering experience, but to avoid becoming a victim to romance fraud, it’s really important people follow some really simple advice: If you’ve started an online relationship and the discussion turns to money – regardless of the reason or the amounts involved – then alarm bells should be ringing.
“Never send money to people you’ve never met in person, no matter how much you’ve spoken online. Talking to a real-life friend or family member can be a good way to sense check what’s going on.”