By Emily Coady-Stemp
local democracy reporter
Romance fraudsters are targeting “the best of society” according to the Surrey Police detective who is charged with tackling the crime.
Surrey Police Detective Constable Rebecca Mason describes going to see victims at midnight, working 26-hour shifts, and how important it is to keep victims talking to her as she fights to stamp romance fraud out of the county.
In 2021 in Surrey, £3.79million of losses were reported in romance fraud scams – where people are targeted on dating sites or social media and form relationships with scammers who build up a story and then can extract tens of thousands of pounds out of victims who sometimes have no one else in their lives.
DC Mason is working with the National Crime Agency, Scamalytics and other organizations at a national level to try to tackle the problem, but admits that even as police take out one suspect “another two pop up”.
The 33-year-old has been with Surrey Police since 2010 and alongside her police work, will also be appearing in a forthcoming series of Channel 4’s Hunted.
In her work she looks at bank accounts, thousands of messages per case, prepares for court cases and has to maintain the victim relationships.
She says: “Everything almost goes at 100 miles an hour. It is just never ending.
“It’s juggling everything.”
‘These are real people whose lives are ruined. They really don’t care
A lot of her role is waiting for fraudsters to slip up. She trawls websites such as Gumtree to see if a linked phone number has been used on there, searching for names or any relevant details that may have been given online.
She said they also use victims to launder money, sending an amount through their accounts and asking them to send the rest on to someone else.
She says: “They’re clever, but every now and then they’ll slip up. All we need is that in, with that one slip up where they got lazy, sent it to themselves, sent it to a girlfriend.”
She says seeing both sides of the scams, both hearing from the victims and trawling through thousands of messages between fraudsters, has led her to learn to hate the people she is pursuing, who “ruin the lives” of victims.
“Is hate a strong word?” she asked. “No, it’s actually not because I will see the messages not only to the victims, but I see them to each other.
“These are real people whose lives are ruined. They really don’t care.”
Seeing both sides also means she is often the only person victims can talk to, and she’s clear that maintaining a relationship with those targeted by fraudsters is “key”.
She said: “If there was a point when they had a wobble, I knew if I could talk them round, keep them on side and make them understand why they were doing it, then we would get this to trial.
“But if they went, we’d lost our trial.”
never send money
She said her key message to avoid romance fraud would be a simple one: don’t send money. But she knows it’s not as easy as that.
DC Mason knows loneliness – often intensified by the coronavirus pandemic – leads many people to be drawn in to romance fraud, and defies anyone who says they wouldn’t be drawn in to imagine being cut off from in-person contact for a year.
She said: “You tell me if someone doesn’t email you saying I’m going to give you the world, you are amazing, they’re interested in your life, takes that personal interest… You tell me that they wouldn’t turn around and do that?
So what is her advice? “If it seems too good to be true, it is.” She hesitates.
“Saying that, they’re just getting so clever. So clever.”
She tells of one scammer who created a fake website for a solicitor firm that was dealing with his international affairs. She tells of someone in Berlin being paid £100,000 to call and Skype victims, showing them around his “lovely house” and adding to the web of lies.
She knows how easy it is for scammers to set up abroad and run a whole operation, calling it “insane” and saying she “can’t explain the gravity of just how big this is.”
Half of victims in Surrey in 2021 were aged between 30 and 59, and DC Mason says a key part of tackling the crime is about spamming people until they almost get annoyed with seeing romance fraud everywhere, “so then they don’t fall for it ”.
She added: “Education is going to be the key to that and just having people so it’s almost second nature.
“Unless we get it in the adverts of Downton Abbey, I’m not sure what’s going to happen.”
‘Victims are the best of society’
She’s clear on why she does the job, and that’s because the victims are “the best of society”, targeted because of their giving nature.
She said as an example in burglary cases the victim could be anyone, but “with these victims, more than any is that these are the people that are just the best of society, they are so kind, so thoughtful.”
She said: “You’ve got the most lovely people you’ll ever meet. Anyone that’s got that giving nature I think it hits them ten times more afterwards, because of that exploitation.
“They think: ‘Hold on I’ve been so nice’. They can’t quite understand that there are people [like that].
“Normally their circle of people are quite nice, so when this person comes in, and they find out a whole thing’s a lie. Not only is it the shock factor it’s the ultimate betrayal.”