CHECK out the two bikini images below and be afraid, very afraid, of what scammers have done to a completely innocent holiday selfie.
An online post obtained by The Sun shows conmen training fellow cyber-fraudsters in how a social media snap can be hijacked and the woman “stripped” of her costume to appear near-naked.
The result can then be used to hold the victim to ransom for a huge sum.
It is but one example of a growing scourge of romance scamming, where hoaxers prey on dating apps and social media sites to take advantage of users.
With sophisticated deep-fake video and voice-cloning, using AI, they can also create bogus dating profiles to woo women, as well as men, before asking them to invest in scams or pay out for “emergencies”.
Glam dating profiles are also stolen and doctored to lure admirers and trick them into parting with money.
Scammers use encrypted messaging apps such as WhatsApp and Telegram to swap tips on new con tricks, which also include pre-written “romance” scripts seemingly sent by genuine lonely hearts.
Latest figures reveal romance scams are up by a fifth year on year.
As many as one in three Brits are being duped — and stung for about £95MILLION a year in total.
Campaigner Anna Rowe infiltrated the schemers’ training sessions on the dark web and found them exchanging posts such as the selfie edit, which she shared with The Sun.
Mum-of-two Anna, 51, has now set up websites and social media platforms to help victims — and knows their pain all too well.
She fell for a man on dating site Tinder.
“Antony” then dated her for months in person before she found he had lied on a fake profile, and had a wife and kids as well as FIVE more lovers he also fooled.
Anna said: “It is becoming more dangerous.
“Scammers have training groups, and are trading hacked accounts and scamming tools.
They can clone a voice and create deepfake video that will soon be so convincing they will appear to sit in front of a victim on screen and have a conversation.
For a lot of scammers, English is not their first language so they use scripts.
They now use AI software such as ChatGPT which is extra convincing.”
Anna found one group, Yahoo Boys, where a trainer told conmen how to put pressure on victims with fake or genuine nude photos.
In a blueprint message, he calls the potential victim a bitch and threatens to send pictures to everyone she knows, adding: “You will soon blame yourself.”
Another online trickster shares a chilling script he sent to a woman, which reads: “I have your nudes and everything I need to ruin your life.”
Lloyds Bank says the number of customers fleeced by love scams rose by 22 per cent last year.
Men made up 52 per cent of cases, and were hit for an average of £5,145 compared to £9,083 for female victims.
The National Fraud Intelligence Bureau received more than 8,000 reports of romance scams in 2022 but experts fear many victims are too embarrassed to contact police.
Lisa Mills, a fraud expert at Victim Support, said: “We had a woman who lost thousands in a case involving AI.
“The scammer transplanted the face of the profile he had hacked on to his own, and was able to have online conversation with the lady concerned.
“People have been left suicidal over romance scams.
“They go through a period of grieving after thinking they were building a genuine relationship.”
People have been left suicidal over romance scams
Mum-of-four Julie-Anne Kearns shared her breast cancer journey on social media, only to be preyed upon.
Julie-Anne, 46, a healthcare assis-tant from Poole, Dorset, had a double mastectomy after doctors found she carried a faulty gene which put her at high risk of breast cancer.
In November 2022, she got chatting to a man called Andrew whose friend request she accepted on Facebook.
He claimed to work in the military for a Peace Corps mission in Afghanistan — an operation Julie-Anne now knows ceased in 1979.
She said: “He told me how much he wanted to be with me, asked me what gifts I liked and where I’d like to go on holiday.
“He asked me if I believed in love at first sight, and fate, and said we were meant to be together.
“I now know this is known as love-bombing, the first stage of the manipulation game.
“Then came the sob story.
“He said his wife had died after being hit by a drunk driver and he had a daughter at boarding school in London.”
But Julie-Anne grew suspicious when “Andrew” started asking her to send him iTunes gift cards.
When she put his image into a Google search, it popped up on lots of profiles — and she blocked him.
Julie-Anne, who now runs a TikTok page giving advice to other women, added: “If I hadn’t confronted him, he would have carried on and asked for more money.”
Similarly, after grandmother Ruth Grover lost her husband in 2014 and became a scamming target, she decided to act.
I now know this is known as love-bombing, the first stage of the manipulation game
Ruth, 66, from Hartlepool, created Facebook and Instagram sites called ScamHaters United that now have tens of thousands of followers and expose fake profiles.
She says the problem is worse than ever, with victims contacted on dating apps, social media, online games such as Scrabble and Words With Friends, on their Fitbits and even on karaoke platforms
She said fraudsters claim to often work away, so providing cover for their lies.
She said: “Romance scams were a huge issue throughout Covid as everyone was glued to technology, and it hasn’t let up.
“Thousands of people contact me.”
People whose profiles are stolen by fraudsters also suffer badly.
James Blake, 30, who runs a digital marketing firm in Lisburn, Co Antrim, had his identity raided by conmen who wooed women then stole sums of up to £50,000.
The cheats hijacked dashing James’s Instagram pics, in which he drives a Lamborghini and McLaren racing cars and shows off a Rolex.
He said: “I realised there was something going on when a guy in my office asked if I’d just followed him from a new Instagram account.
“It was clearly a fake profile.
“We laughed, thinking, ‘This is a kid in his bedroom messing around’.
“But over the next few weeks more and more profiles cropped up.
“I got them removed. But then I got messages from women asking, ‘Are you talking to me on this dating app?’
“I was shocked, as I wasn’t on any. But things snowballed.
“I woke daily to messages from women saying ‘I thought I was talking to you and now realise it’s a fake and I’ve given money for an investment project’, or for X, Y, Z.
“Sums varied from a few hundred to £50,000 and the women were from all over the world.
“Many were really invested in the relationship.”
Last year James probed the scammers with BBC Three documentary Hunting The Catfish Crime Gang, now on iPlayer.
He exposed secret centres in Cambodia and Myanmar, where trafficked Chinese and South Asian nationals work for a pittance to con people — and are beaten by gang masters if they fail.
How to spot signs
SOMEONE you have just met either online or in person declares their love for you too quickly.
- Many online tricksters claim to work in the military or medical profession, and need to travel, which gives them excuses why they cannot video-chat or meet in person.
- They often ask for money to help them through time-critical emergencies.
- Most will pull at the heartstrings with stories of death or debt.
- Their pictures are too perfect to believe. Try a Google image search to check whether their photo has been taken from elsewhere.
- They will tell you to be sure to keep your relationship private.
HOW TO GET HELP
- YOU can report romance scams to Action Fraud at actionfraud.police.uk.
- Anna Rowe is co-founder of a site offering advice and support for victims, at lovesaid.org.
- You can see profile pictures used by fraudsters at ScamHaters United, on Facebook and Instagram.