Hiding behind the picture of a handsome American soldier stolen from a real Instagram account, Chris Maxwell would try to make women fall in love with him online.
The 25-year-old Nigerian says he conned up to 30 victims out of more than $70,000 (£56,000) over five years, enjoying “lavish” spending on nights out in clubs and designer clothes.
“When I was doing this, I used to think about people – I used to feel guilty,” he tells Sky News.
“I used to feel bad but as time goes on and I started making good money – big money – I stopped feeling bad.”
Reports of romance fraud are on the rise in the UK, with victims conned out of more than £88m last year, according to latest figures.
Chris says he became a scammer while he was a student aged 17 and would approach strangers in the US, UK, Canada and Germany on social media.
“I start on common ground – I make sure they like me,” he says.
“I make sure they trust me so much and tell me anything – they can trust me, they can confide in me.
“After that, I start going in a relationship with them and that’s how I start my scam.”
One American woman – who he contacted online and spoke to for a year – handed over more than $30,000 (£24,000), says Chris.
“After she gave me the money, she became sick,” he says.
“She became depressed and wanted to see who I actually am.
“I did something really, really bad. I started felling guilty because she’s sick.
“I showed her my face, she cried but she forgave me.”
Romance scammer guide leaked
Chris says he was arrested in Nigeria but never charged over his romance scams – and knows of others who have “served time”.
None of the money was returned to his victims but he insists he’s now “living a good life” after the American woman introduced him to Social Catfish, a company which helps identify fraudsters by verifying online identities through reverse search technology. Chris now works as a consultant for the firm.
Since turning his back on a life of crime, he says he has leaked a 40-page step-by-step guide entitled How to Make a White Woman Fall in Love With You from Online Chat that is used by scammers.
The handbook – which advises scammers to target women over the age of 40 – details how to carry out research from their social media profiles, suggesting finding out about “her hobbies, her pets, job, passion, if she has kids, age, where she lives, what she loves etc”.
Would-be fraudsters are told to make an approach using the information gathered or pick from “a list of 100 pickup lines that work every time”, including: “Life without you would be like a broken pencil… pointless”.
There are tips for carrying out a conversation, such as using a grammar app to avoid mistakes, a series of questions to ask and even “100 of the best jokes that will get her cracking her ribs” as “getting a woman to laugh is one of the fastest ways to make her like you”.
The guide recommends compliments, and again there is a list of suggestions, and tells scammers to wait at least a week before asking for money, which should not be done “directly”.
“When she asks about your day you can tell her it was bad,” the guide says.
“Then tell her you are broke, you are behind your mortgage and they will kick you out next week and you have exhausted every means to get money. By herself, she will offer to give you money.”
How to avoid falling victim to a romance scam?
According to Detective Constable Rebecca Mason, from Surrey Police, the “ABC of online dating” is “assume nothing; believe no-one and confirm everything”. Her advice includes:
• Never send money to someone you haven’t met as the likelihood is, it’s a scam
• If someone seems too good to be true they often are. Trust your gut
• If you have arranged a face-to-face meeting with the person and they keep cancelling, they probably aren’t who they say they are
• Be careful with what personal information you share such as answers to your security questions. Fraudsters will often ask for your home address to send gifts or flowers
• Be wary – you could be speaking to anyone on the end of the phone
Romance scam reports increased by more than a fifth (22%) last year compared with 2022, according to data from Lloyds Bank, which said the average amount lost by a victim was nearly £7,000.
Victims aged 65 to 74 tended to lose more money on average, with the figure at more than £13,000, Lloyds said.
Detective Constable Rebecca Mason, from Surrey Police, says people who write they are “widowed, divorced or lonely” in online profiles can be seen as a target but “anyone can be a victim of romance scams” – and often gay males are disproportionately targeted.
Victims are more likely to be male, while the highest number of people scammed in the UK last year were aged in their 20s, according to figures released by the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau.
There were more than 8,600 reports of romance scams in the UK last year – including 11 victims who were under the age of 10 and 12 victims aged 90 or over, the data shows.
Romance scammers using AI
DC Mason says fraudsters look to exploit the surge in the use of dating apps in the run-up to Valentine’s Day.
She warns that AI technology is enabling fraudsters to create a whole new identity and image.
“They can video call using this AI technology which can make them seem real,” she tells Sky News.
“People are now becoming more confident to speak up and report it to Action Fraud or the police. However, it is still a very under-reported crime.
“The change has come with online dating being a lot more accepted than it perhaps once was a few years ago.”
Wayne Stevens, national fraud lead at the charity Victim Support, says romance fraud is “very common” and people can be more vulnerable to the “devastating crime” as they search for friendship or romance online around Valentine’s Day.
“There’s a common misconception that romance fraud – and fraud in general – only affects older people,” he adds.
“In reality, fraudsters are highly skilled opportunists who will exploit people when they are at their lowest and craving companionship, making it easy for anyone to become a victim.”