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Fraud victim backs action to tackle ‘romance scams’

Michelle Szombara is urging people to be cautious online.

Police are urging people to be cautious about what they reveal online (Dominic Lipinski/PA)
Police are urging people to be cautious about what they reveal online (Dominic Lipinski/PA)

A woman has told how her life was turned upside down by a fraudster who stole £60,000 from her and her family.

Michelle Szombara met Alan Clarkson on a dating website but within weeks of getting to know each other he was stealing money from her.

The con, which spanned a four-year period, caused his then-partner to lose her home and declare herself bankrupt.

Ms Szombara is now backing a Police Scotland campaign to raise awareness of the type of fraud known as a “romance scam”.

My advice would be to be really cautious with everybody Michelle Szombara

The 40-year-old from Fife told how the relationship began with messages on the dating site and they met up within a few weeks.

“He turned up at my house with some spare clothes and stayed for the next four years,” she said.

Police Scotland said Clarkson, of West Lothian, then started to claim he could not access his bank account and was in debt.

He sent her emails purportedly from financial institutions and produced fake paperwork to show he had money in another account to pay her back.

The fraud also affected Ms Szombara’s parents, who handed over money to Clarkson.

She said: “He took over the rent for my house. I ended up over £7,000 in rent arrears and my council tax wasn’t getting paid.

“It got to the stage we were living off of nothing. I was so stressed.

“I did every hour going at my work to be left with nothing. I had a lovely house and I lost everything.

“I was embarrassed and ashamed that I got my mum and dad involved.

“They worked all their days, only had a couple of years left on their mortgage and we’re now living in a council house because of him.”

The fraudster was jailed for 42 months in February after being convicted of stealing £60,000 from Ms Szombara and her parents between 2010 and 2014.

Warning people to be on the alert, Ms Szombara said: “My advice would be to be really cautious with everybody.

“Check email addresses are related to the company. Throughout the four years we were together I never met his family so always check someone’s background.”

Police say romance fraud is largely unreported due to victims’ feelings of embarrassment, lack of evidence or a feeling it might have been their fault.

Nevertheless, figures from April to December last year show the number of reported fraud incidents, including romance scams, increased by 21% from 6,106 the previous year to 7,398.

Officers are highlighting the type of fraud as part of a national acquisitive crime campaign, which will run for four weeks.

Their advice includes never sharing or exchanging personal information which can be used by fraudsters to obtain credit.

People are also being urged never to send money or bank details to someone they have met online.

Detective Superintendent Nicola Shepherd said: “Criminals can be extremely convincing and they prey on people who are emotionally vulnerable, particularly online.

“It can be easy to get caught up with the attention you receive but it’s important to stop and think if a stranger’s actions are genuine.”

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