Pandemic is bonanza for online friendship fraud

Over 2,000 cases of online “friendship fraud” have been reported in Belgium since the start of 2020.  An investigation conducted by VRT Radio 2 revealed that victims had suffered losses worth at least 15 million euros.

In Belgium it’s the economy department that registers fraud cases.  Since the start of the pandemic cases seem to have surged.  The amount of money fraudsters are getting hold of has risen, but there is an emotional cost too: families are ashamed when it happens to them. 

Lien Meurisse of the economy department says the 15 million figure is simply the sum of all the monies lost to friendship fraud if you add up reported losses: “It’s the tip of the iceberg.  Not all victims think it’s worth the bother reporting.  The damage is far greater.”

The pandemic served as an engine: people had to restrict their contacts making them more vulnerable to online friendship fraud. The corona crisis also gave fraudsters the perfect excuse not to turn up in person. 

Often the fraud takes place across national borders but not always.  Fraudsters act as if they are your online friend.  They seek out their victims on dating apps like Tinder but also on social media including Facebook, TikTok and Instagram.  Often weeks of chat conversation will precede the start of the actual fraud. Often this leads to an emotional bond: victims start to get emotionally involved with the person who is trying to defraud them.

Fraudsters may claim they are stuck abroad and that their bank account is blocked and they need urgent help or come up with some other hard luck story.  Lien Meurisse warns that people often don’t realise the person they fall for doesn’t really exist: If it’s too good to be true, then it probably is.”

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