THE MAN responsible for bringing fraudsters to heel has branded online romance frauds “one of the most despicable crimes”.

The scams can be worth millions of pounds, with the average victim stung for £8,000. One Wiltshire victim was scammed out of an £180,000 fortune.

Speaking ahead of Valentine’s Day Jon Lee, Wiltshire Police fraud manager, said: “This is one of the most despicable crimes along with the other frauds because it preys on the heartstrings.

“There’s no romance. There’s no love.

“The suspects have absolutely no interest whatsoever in the person they are communicating with.”

Criminals operating anywhere in the world will set up fake dating website and app profiles, surfing social media to piece together information about possible victims before making contact. Fraudsters pass details of victims between each other, collating details in a so-called sucker’s list.

That contact might start off relatively innocently. The fraudster might then move the conversation onto a different social media platform – WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger – where it is harder to track.

Then the requests for money will start. The beloved might claim to be an American soldier serving in the Middle East who needs cash for a sibling’s healthcare. Or they might ask for money for the air fare to meet the victim.

It never happens. Instead, there will be another request for money, paid into a different bank account.

By the time they realise they’ve been stung the victim may have paid out thousands.

Few victims report what’s happened to them.

Mr Lee said: “This is one of the most under-reported type of frauds. There’s embarrassment, disbelief, people don’t want to tell family, they’ve lost the family inheritance.

“They can’t believe they’ve been so stupid. It’s led to suicides and that’s the most devastating thing.

“A lot of people don’t want to believe it or are happy to believe they are in that relationship.”

Detectives are told: “It’s my money, I can send that to who I want.”

Catching those responsible is difficult. They are typically based in countries with whom the UK does not have arrest treaties.

It also means it’s almost impossible to recover any cash.

Mr Lee urged people to exercise caution when using dating websites and apps.

“If it sounds too good to be true it’s too good to be true,” he said.