A WOMAN who believed she was in a genuine relationship with a man online lost around £350,000 in a romance scam.

Anna, not her real name, thought she was in a relationship with a man called Andrew for more than two years when she realised she had been the victim of a romance fraud and reported it to Sussex Police in October.

Anna, a finance professional in her 50s, joined dating website Zoosk in February 2019 after four years of being single and the man, who claimed he was a Bulgarian food importer living in London.

She said she had an immediate connection with him and said: "I'd been recovering from an incredibly difficult, abusive marriage and I was finally ready to meet someone.

"He showered me with love and affection. If you imagine a stick of candy floss, I was the stick and he was the sugar wrapped around me. I felt as though I was floating."

Around five weeks after their initial connection, Andrew asked Anna for some money to get through a temporary business crisis.

Requests for further financial assistance became more frequent, even including a plea to cover repatriation costs in respect of his daughter who had died overseas.

Although there were occasions Anna voiced her suspicions to Andrew, she said: "I'd be sucked back into his all-powerful love bubble. I was also getting receipts for many things, and he constantly had an explanation for me."

She had engaged in some video calls with Andrew, but has since found out that he had used technology to superimpose a moving image.

When Andrew claimed to be held as a hostage in Paris and tortured by loan sharks over unpaid debts, Anna turned to social media for help regarding his whereabouts.

She was then contacted by a lady in France, who told Anna that Andrew's photo was actually that of a famous actor in South America.

Anna said: "I had spent the year lacking sleep, completely unstable, but trapped in this abusive cycle.

"I'd become obsessed with him and preventing his pain. It felt like losing a husband that I loved with every inch of my heart and soul.

"I was never going to get any closure or say goodbye."

Anna reported what happened to Action Fraud, and later became involved with Sussex Police and Victim Support Sussex. As is common with people who fall victim to this type of fraud, Anna has not told anyone close to her what happened.

She said: "He was my fantasy man and after being abused in my previous relationship, it seemed like I'd finally found perfection.

"I am intelligent but I'm not the only person this has happened to. The heart and mind can be fragile, especially after abuse.

"The combination of taking someone's heart whilst robbing them day in day out exceeds evil known to the common public."

Anna's case was one of 427 reports of romance fraud made to Operation Signature that Sussex Police process to identify, protect, and support vulnerable victims of fraud.

Police have urged people to be vigilant when looking for love, particularly those aged between 30-59 who accounted for half of all romance fraud cases across Sussex last year, with more than £4 million taken from people who fell victim in the county in 2021.

Bernadette Lawrie BEM, the financial abuse safeguarding officer for Sussex Police, said: "With more and more people turning to online platforms to form relationships this cruel and heartless crime is on the rise.

"Fraudsters prey on the loneliness of victims, targeting and grooming them for the purpose of exploiting money. Since the pandemic we have seen increases in this fraud type because social interactions and connections have been reduced and criminals have used this as an opportunity to befriend people and strike up online relationships with those at their most vulnerable before defrauding them and stealing their money."

Ms Lawrie advised people seeking a relationship to not rush into an online relationship, analyse their profile, talk to friends and family, evade scams by not sending money or sharing bank details with someone you've only met online, and stay on the dating site's messenger service until you're confident the person is who they say they are.

Sussex Police said they are taking proactive action to try and prevent people falling victim to romance fraud.

People can report a scammer making contact or fraudulent material relating to romance fraud to Scamalytics.

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