People in Sussex are being warned of the dangers of falling victim to crooks who target people through online dating sites.
Sussex Police has dubbed the criminals ‘romance fraudsters’.
A spokesman said: “Romance fraud typically involves the fraudster contacting someone on a dating site and gaining their trust.
“They tell their victim they need money for a family emergency, flights over to see them, or various other pretexts.
“In nearly 90 per cent of cases the approach is made by Facebook or email.
“In Sussex over just one year, to 30 September, 149 victims lost a total of £2,280,000, with an average loss of £18,700 - sadly four out of five attempts succeeded.”
Some 57 per cent of victims live alone and their average age is 62.
PC Bernadette Lawrie, Sussex Police financial abuse safeguarding officer, said: “Romance fraud, although accounting for only 10 of all fraud reports, is one of the most despicable crimes we see, and the victims can be among the most challenging to deal with as they are often in denial that the fraudster they are in contact with is not genuine - until it is too late
“Victims are targeted and exploited when they are at their most vulnerable and the complex tactics and deceitful tales that lure the victims into parting with such huge sums of money are quite astonishing.
“One of the most difficult conversations we have is telling a victim that not only will they not see their money come back but that the person they believe they are in a relationship with and are looking forward to a future with, is in fact a criminal posing under a false identity.”
Operation Signature is the Sussex Police campaign to identify and support vulnerable victims of fraud across the county.
Fraud is becoming more complex and deceptive, and much of it is targeted at vulnerable and elderly people, said the spokesman.
The force offers support to protect victims from further targeting.
This can include helping them to change their phone number to an ex-directory number, contacting family to suggest Power of Attorney, mail re-direction, offering them advice on call blocking devices and referring them to other support services.
Police also raise awareness of the issue within local communities through local Prevention teams, and news and social media, encouraging people to take preventative steps.
Police advice is: never send or give money to anyone you don’t know or trust; check people are who they say they are; don’t share your personal information; make decisions in your own time; and if in doubt phone a relative or a friend.