AN ELDERLY woman was scammed out of her life savings by a fraudster she met while playing Scrabble online.

It comes as romance fraud went up by almost 70 per cent last year amid the coronavirus pandemic, with victims losing thousands to online scammers.

The 78-year-old from Chichester, who did not want to be named, came into contact with the conman while playing a virtual version of the popular boardgame.

He claimed to be a 63-year-old American working on an overseas oil rig - but soon started asking for money to replace tools that had fallen into the sea.

She handed over more than £2,000 before her daughter became suspicious, checked out his photo online and realised it was a scam.

The woman said: "We found we had so much in common. We had both lost our spouses and a child.

"It developed into a loving conversation over days. We exchanged photos and spoke on the phone and there was even talk of getting engaged."

Within a few weeks, the victim started sending the scammer money and continued to help him financially in the months that followed, using up all her savings.

"I gave him everything I had and started borrowing from my family,” she said.

After doing a reverse online search on his photo, the victim and her daughter discovered it was linked to six other identities and contacted Sussex Police.

The force received 286 reports of romance fraud in 2020 - a 68 per cent increase from 2019.

Police said many of the cases reported happened during lockdown when people were feeling more lonely than usual, making the crimes "particularly deplorable".

More than half of victims lived alone and the average loss was £17,993.

PC Bernadette Lawrie, financial abuse safeguarding officer for Sussex and Surrey Police said: "Fraud is one of the fastest growing crime types and we want to make people aware of the impact this awful crime has to help prevent further cases.

"Romance fraudsters prey on victims' hopes of finding a genuine and meaningful connection and then capitalise on it.

"Sadly, some people who become victims of romance fraud feel too embarrassed to report it to police or talk to friends or family.

"There is absolutely nothing to be ashamed about - please speak to us in confidence and we will do whatever we can to help."

The vast majority were contacted through social media and dating sites, Sussex Police said.

PC Lawrie added: "We are taking action on romance fraud by raising awareness of what to watch out for.

"Through Operation Signature, our campaign to identify and support vulnerable fraud victims, we are providing help and support to victims and issuing prevention advice in local communities."

Sussex Police & Crime Commissioner, Katy Bourne said organised criminals are "acutely aware" of how lonely and isolated people are at this time and warned people to be particularly vigilant around Valentine's Day.

She said: "A lockdown Valentine’s Day provides the perfect opportunity for fraudsters to prey on those who are seeking love and affection.

"This crime is not only deceiving and can con our residents out of hard-earned savings but it is also incredibly cruel.

"Please heed the advice being issued by Action Fraud and the police this Valentine’s Day.

"Be vigilant to the signs they tell you to look out for and protect your savings and, more importantly, your heart."