How romance fraud lost a Weston man his £150,000 life savings
- Credit: PA
"I’ve lost all my confidence. I’ve lost who I am."
In 2020, Tom - who is using a pseudonym to protect his real identity - was struggling after the break-up of a relationship and found himself looking for companionship online.
It was in this virtual world that Tom, in his thirties, met Jia.
She said she was in her late twenties and lived in Hong Kong.
Before long, the conversation moved from the dating site to WhatsApp - and the relationship started getting more involved.
"I wasn’t in a good place," said Tom, from Weston.
"The break-up left me feeling flat."
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They used FaceTime once, which was initiated by Jia, but Tom said it was a 'very weird' conversation.
"She only showed part of her face," he said.
"I tried to talk to her, but she wouldn’t talk back."
Tom had few pictures of her, although he did ask for more.
He said: "Issues were flagging up to me, but everything she was doing to build up trust with me was enough to keep me there."
Tom perservered, with Jia telling him about her life - and her success investing in cryptocurrency.
"She portrayed herself as a successful investor with inside knowledge," he said.
"She spoke about the future, moving to the UK, and how we could build this wealthy lifestyle together."
Soon, Jia introduced what she said was behind much of her financial success, asking Tom if he knew anything about cryptocurrency Bitcoin (BTC).
Tom disclosed he’d invested in it a few years ago but thought little of her mentioning it as it was 'secure and she was miles away'.
She kept showing Tom screenshots of how much money she was making and sending pictures of her business and Porsche that she apparently owned. But Tom politely declined when she encouraged him to invest too.
The communication between the two certainly wasn’t all about money, although Jia wanted to make it very clear that she was a successful investor with plenty of money and her own business.
They would discuss their personal lives and she told Tom quite quickly after meeting online that she loved him.
She persevered with and after unsuccessful attempts at trying to get Tom to trade Bitcoin, Jia tried another tactic - she called him naïve for being cautious with his Bitcoin, which he admits, with hindsight, riled him.
He was directed to an online trading platform and was instructed by Jia to download the app to his phone.
He was immediately suspicious due to some of the website’s functionalities not working. But despite his concerns, he was reassured by Jia, and was pestered into investing a small amount of Bitcoin in order to prove the website’s legitimacy.
0.1 BTC (worth approximately £1,165 at the time) was transferred to a wallet address and converted to US Dollars.
Initially, Jia advised him to trade in a crypto token called FWD. A subsequent search into the token showed it was likely fabricated for the purposes of fraud. Jia guided Tom through all trading, advising him when to make and close a trade.
Still sceptical, Tom needed to build his confidence with the website and again prove its legitimacy by withdrawing money.
"It convinced me that even though I had doubts about the trading platform, maybe it is legit because it wasn’t holding onto my money, it was giving it back," he said.
Since he had made profit on his first trade and the website had carried out the withdrawal as expected, he decided he would increase the amount invested.
He doubled it to 0.2 BTC, making the conversion using the same method as before.
Again, more profit was made and the next investment was 0.5 BTC.
Remaining cautious, Tom decided to try withdrawing £1,000 without telling Jia, which didn’t work.
She assured him that it can take time, and sent him the £1,000 - and reminded him they were going to build this wealthy lifestyle together.
"I felt lucky, as I seemed to have met someone with insider information," he said.
"Making money every single time isn’t really possible unless you have inside knowledge."
Jia claimed that her aunt was a knowledgeable investor and had this information.
Although Tom was making money and it started to seem more legitimate, he always intended to keep some money back.
But Jia kept telling him there was a rare opportunity to make increased profits, but he would need to invest quickly, otherwise he would miss out.
Tom invested the remaining amount of his BTC.
Then, his investment was wiped out - he had lost around £150,000.
"My balance had been cleared, there was no money remaining. In the blink of eye, everything was gone. I was sick to my stomach," he said.
He messaged Jia, who claimed to have lost more than $1million herself, before she added: "Honey, don’t put too much pressure on yourself every day. I will always be by your side. I love you."
In a state of desperation, Tom followed Jia’s advice again and used the rest of the money he could get his hands on – £3,000 – into Bitcoin and again invested it through the online platform.
It again was wiped out.
Jia then refused to help, saying she had to 'fly to Australia to tend to her sick aunt'.
Tom then knew he had been the victim of a scam.
"I was unhappy and just generally sad," he said.
"(The initial break-up) really messed me up, to the point where it clearly impaired my judgement so much, that I allowed this person to manipulate me into doing something which I would have never ordinarily done.
"Trust was built but in the blink of an eye, everything was gone.
"I was sick to my stomach. I've worked and saved hard so that I could be financially set for life.
"It's like holding a winning lottery ticket in your hand and the wind taking it away. It's ruined me."
Physically and mentally, the impact of what happened took its toll on Tom.
"I recognised I needed help straight away and went straight round to see my mum," he said.
"If I didn’t have that support, I wouldn’t be here. I was going to do something that wouldn’t leave me here anymore.
"I am not someone who is able to hide things – I can’t just put a brave face on. It’s always helped me to talk."
As well as support from family and friends, Tom sought advice from occupational health at work, who encouraged him to report what happened to police and Action Fraud.
Tom said: "To at least know that it was being looked at was a lot more than I expected to come from this report."
Enquiries were carried out by Avon and Somerset’s cyber team and he also spoke to the Cyber Helpline, the Crisis Team, Victim Support, Samaritans, and MIND.
But the emotional impact remains.
Tom still thinks about what happened when he lies in bed at night, and that he does still have particularly bad days.
"I don't trust women. I feel like I can be manipulated by women now to my detriment. I’ve lost all my confidence. I’ve lost who I am," he said.
Tom continues to receive support from a counsellor and hopes sharing his experience will help others.
"Whenever something bad has happened in my life which I’ve learned from, I’ve always wanted to prevent others from having the same experience," he added.
"I like knowing that I can stop people from being in the same position. I find comfort in being able to help others."
When asked what red flags he would want to advise people to look out for, he said the following:
If money is brought up, treat it as a red flag
No matter how safe you think your money is, or what you have, never disclose to anyone what money you have or what you’ve invested in
Be wary of a sob story
If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is
A problem shared is a problem halved – talk to someone about it
Amy Horrobin, a fraud protect officer at Avon and Somerset Police, said: "In terms of investments, it can be really difficult to tell a genuine investment opportunity apart from a fraudulent one – even experienced investors have been caught out.
"Fraudsters use various tactics to make the investment appear to be genuine such as sending some small returns, creating fraudulent websites, and hiding behind the names of genuine companies.
"Do your research and seek independent financial advice before committing to any investment."
Cyber Protect Officer Drew Jefferies said hearing Tom's story left him 'devastated'.
"I was really moved by his story and how it not only affected him financially, but also in every other aspect of his life," Drew said.
"He dealt with the situation exceptionally well and I admire his bravery in speaking out. A huge thank you to Tom for looking to help us create awareness and stop others from falling into the same trap."
Anyone who thinks they may have been a victim of Romance Fraud should contact Action Fraud on 0300 123 2040 or visit www.actionfraud.police.uk.