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Romance scams are on the rise, the NCA has warned in a new report iStock

Online fraudsters using fake identities on dating websites and social media networks to trick victims out of their money has become a lucrative underground industry and is only set to grow over the next 18 months.

The fraud, known as a romance scam, is being bolstered by leaks from major dating and pornography websites which can reveal a victim's intimate secrets, according to the UK National Crime Agency (NCA). Data breaches, for example at Ashley Madison and AdultFriendFinder, can lead to blackmail and extortion, it added.

It is "almost certain" that the UK will be targeted with more romance scams and highly targeted email compromise campaigns over the next 18 months, the agency warned in its National Strategic Assessment, released to the public on Thursday 29 June.

"Social engineering is highly likely to continue to rise as an attack vector, originating most notably from West Africa," it added.

In these social engineering attacks, which often rely on direct messages and grooming tactics, victims believe they are talking to a genuine person.

How romance scams work

The online fraudster orchestrating a romance scam plays the long game and will work to earn the trust of their victim over time. Once this is gained, the culprit pretends to experience a life-threatening or heartbreaking event before asking the victim for financial aid.

Once a payment is sent, the scheme then becomes more relentless as the scammer attempts to bleed as much money as possible by creating more fake situations – be it the death of a loved one or being stranded in a foreign country after being robbed. The statistics show it works.

Figures released in January by the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau revealed there were 3,389 victims of romance fraud in 2016, losing a combined total of more than £39m ($50m).

This was a rise from the previous year, when 3,363 victims lost a total of just under £26m ($33m). Meanwhile, in 2016, the average loss for each victim was £11,500 compared with £7,731 in 2015. At least 39% of those who were tricked are men, the figures suggested.

The victims are mounting

There are numerous victims who have spoken out about being fooled by romance scams over the years – and for some the personal consequences are more severe that financial ruin.

In March this year, 54-year-old Pam Wareing was taken to court after allegedly stealing more than £500,000 from her employer, a UK solicitor, to send to a conman she met online. That case was referred to a higher court and remains under investigation.

Another high-profile case was that of 68-year-old Judith Lathlean, a university professor who fell victim to a romance scam in 2015 via an online dating website. Lathlean lost a total of £140,000 after a man using the name John Porter online convinced her to send it to him.

"Porter" claimed his house had been broken into, resulting in the loss of his passport and phone. He claimed to have a vast fortune of £10m that was suddenly available but only if someone could go to Amsterdam and pay a fee to release the money. It was a complex web of lies.

"A lot of the online dating fraudsters we know are abroad," Steve Proffitt, deputy head of Action Fraud, told the BBC earlier this year. They're in West Africa, Eastern Europe and it's very difficult for British law enforcement to take action against them in those jurisdictions."

Luckily, there are a number of steps you can take to protect yourself from romance scams, as well as a number of key signs to look out for if you are suspicious of someone online. The advice comes courtesy of Action Fraud, the primary UK reporting centre for scams and cybercrime.

How to protect yourself:

• Avoid giving away too many personal details when dating online. Revealing your full name, date of birth and home address may lead to your identity being stolen.

• Never send or receive money or give away your bank details to someone you've only met online, no matter how much you trust them or believe their story.

• Pick a reputable dating website and use the site's messaging service. Fraudsters want to quickly switch to social media or texting so there's no evidence of them asking you for money.

If you have struck up a relationship with someone online, you should be concerned if they are asking a lot of personal questions but never interested in talking about themselves, Action Fraud said. Additionally, it is advised to reverse image search their picture to make sure it's not stolen.

"What is striking from this year's assessment are the themes running through the crime types," NCA deputy director general Matthew Horne said in a statement at the release of the report. "Organised criminal networks are using online methods to defraud and extort," he warned.