The son of a South Yorkshire romance fraud victim has revealed he ended up on the verge of a 'breakdown' due to the impact of the crime on his family.
Richard, from Sheffield, is sharing his family's story this Day in the hope others will be able to spot the signs if a loved one is falling for a romance fraudster instead of someone genuinely looking for love.
The ordeal began last summer when Richard's 75-year-old mother, Emily*, met a man on Facebook called ‘Mark Gregory’, who claimed to be an American man in his 60s and working as a diver on a ship.
Emily had separated from Richard's father many years ago, and he sadly died last year.
Richard said: "My mum said she had been talking to a gentleman online. I said that's OK, as long as she wasn't going to be sending any money to him. Unfortunately everything I said to my mum went straight over her head because she was in a little bubble - she was in love and nothing else mattered.
"This man told my mum he had a sick son who needed medical care. As he'd made my mum fall so deeply in love with him, anything he said, she did."
Emily and 'Mark' had met on Facebook but soon afterwards moved their conversations to Whatsapp. 'Mark' sent a photograph of himself to her, but it later turned out to be an image copied from the internet.
Richard later discovered his mum had been making regular trips to her local Post Office to send 'Mark' funds for his sick son, and to pay for a visa so he could visit her in Sheffield.
The Post Office became concerned about the payments and alerted the authorities. She was stopped from making withdrawals at her local branch, but she continued attempting to send money to countries including Ghana and Nigeria using other businesses across the city. She also borrowed money from friends, and one of her friends made payments on Emily’s behalf, wrongly believing she was helping.
Emily pawned some of her jewellery to generate extra finances to send away, and even had a secret mobile phone which she used to contact 'Mark'.
Richard, who eventually had to take control of his mum's finances, says Emily has lost a total of around £10,000. 'Mark' has never been traced.
He said: "This has made my son ill and my relationship with my wife has been strained to breaking point. My brother has washed his hands of the situation and I've ended up having counselling sessions and taking anti-depressants.
"We’ve got our suspicions my mum might still somehow be in contact with ‘Mark’ – even if he’s getting £10 from her, he’s happy. The level of trust with my mum is rock bottom. We're absolutely distraught. If I hadn't been on this medication, I would have had a full breakdown by now.”
Richard added: "If sharing our story stops one other person from going through what we have gone through, this will have been worth it."
Andy Foster, South Yorkshire Police's Fraud Protect Officer, offers advice and support to people like Emily and Richard as part of his role.
He said: "Unfortunately, romance fraud is an emerging trend in South Yorkshire and across the country. These scammers are totally heartless and prey on victim's sympathies or desire for love and attention. Sadly, they are also extremely difficult, if not impossible, to track down.
"You can protect yourself from romance fraud by avoiding giving away too many personal details to a stranger online, never sending money to someone you've only ever met online, and messaging potential love interests through reputable sites' messaging services. Fraudsters want to switch quickly to platforms like Whatsapp or Google Hangout so their messages asking you for money go undetected."
You can report romance fraud to Action Fraud - in confidence if you wish - at actionfraud.police.uk or by calling 0300 123 2040.
*Name has been changed