We sit down with the romance fraud vigilante-turned-author to discuss the responsibility she feels for victims, why social media platforms need to be held more accountable, and why she put a photo of Keanu Reeves on the cover of her book.
Despite having a popular Twitter account (114,000 followers and growing), with the sole purpose of exposing romance scammers, Becky Holmes says she still gets contacted by hopeful, hapless fraudsters. In fact, she was contacted just 15 minutes before our interview.
“Fortunately, a lot of them are not very observant, so I get to do what I do without too much recourse,” said Becky.
What Becky does is two-fold: She exposes the often-hilarious exchanges with romance scammers, some of whom claim to be celebrities, and, more recently, provides a forum in which people can share their experiences and learn more about this increasingly common form of fraud.
The conversation is clearly needed. Romance scams rose by 19% globally in 2023. Considering only 58% of victims ever report the crime to law enforcement, that figure is likely to be much higher.
Becky has just released her debut book, ‘Keanu Reeves is Not in Love with You’, featuring first-hand accounts of victims, examples of scripts used by fraudsters, and a look into the psychology of fraud.
Although the book itself only took nine months to write, the aim of helping people and raising awareness of the dangers of social media fraud began when Becky first joined Twitter (now X) in 2020.
“Almost immediately I got a flurry of messages from all these fabulously handsome men, and they were all immediately in love with me. They all said the same thing and were all from very similar looking men. Some were in the army, and some were in pilots’ uniforms, and it was very clear that there was a pattern.
“At first, I was blocking and deleting them and having a bit of fun by seeing how nonsensical I could be before they picked up on what I was saying. I began posting the exchanges on Twitter a few months later, and people found them funny and were laughing and we were all having a good time. Then, in 2021, quite a few victims of romance fraud got in touch with me and said that they’d been a victim and had lost a large amount of money. That’s when it all changed.”
In this interview, we discuss the different ways in which romance scammers tend to target men and women, the delicate balance in presenting information in a relatable, digestible format that does not undermine the danger and impact, and much more.
What were the main reasons behind becoming a ‘romance scam vigilante’? Did you ever become a victim yourself [i.e. transfer funds, or ‘fall in love’]?
So, I’m fortunate enough to have never been the victim of romance fraud. However, I was in a very coercively controlled relationship at one point, and the parallels between what victims of romance fraud go through and victims of coercive control are very similar.
I ended up speaking on the phone with many victims and they said they hadn’t told anybody, and they didn’t know what to do. I hated the idea of people feeling lonely because I’ve been in that situation myself. So, I became kind of a sounding board for a few people and felt a responsibility.
Most had reported to Action Fraud but not heard anything back, so were in a very isolated place. I started realizing what a huge subject it was and how underreported it was, and it became like a passion project.
[Read more about the steps that the UK government is taking to address fraud, in our blog ‘UK declares war on fraud, calls on tech giants to join the fight.’]
I see that many of the messages you share on Twitter are actual Twitter exchanges, in your personal experience, is this where romance fraud is most common?
No, I get messages on Instagram, on Twitter, and dating sites are, of course, rife with them. I’ve also heard about people receiving messages on TikTok, and bizarrely, if you play online games, romance fraudsters are lurking there too. Whatever platform it is, the one thing they immediately want to do is to take you to WhatsApp or Google Chat. I have a separate Google Chat account where I have these exchanges.
Romance scams target both men and women. Are there any differences in approaches?
Although I never view stats as wholly reliable, statistically, romance fraud targets men and women equally. I want to stress that not all women are approached with the promise of romance and men with the promise of sex, but more men do tend to be victims of sextortion. Sextortion is when you have exchanged intimate images with somebody, and that person then blackmails you. For example, a married man with kids or a high position at work will send images to someone [who is almost certainly not a Russian model], and the recipient will then reply and say that they’ve hacked into your Facebook and can now see your children’s Facebook accounts, and your colleagues’ accounts, and that’s when the requests for money start.
It’s the old adage, isn’t it, and, of course, there’s a danger of generalizing, but men are more led by what they see, and women by what they hear.
That’s right, although the example that I use in the book is of a lady who believed she was in a relationship with somebody, but very quickly realized it was a scam. When she ended the relationship, he said, “Yes, you’ve caught me. I’m not this person, but I’ve got your images. I know who your children are on Facebook.” He extorted about £14,000 from her. With that case, she never tried to get the money back, or go to the police as she had grown up children and grandchildren, and even though I assured her that the police would keep such investigations confidential, she was terrified her family would find out.
I once interviewed an ex-police officer who believed the danger of romance scams/ pig butchering is how it often leads to more serious forms of deception, and often spoke about the biggest hurdle being the perception of fraud, with many people not taking it as serious as, say, burglary. What is your opinion on how fraud is perceived in the UK?
So, as you’ll know, pig butchering scams originate from Southeast Asia and this is an area where human trafficking is rife, because during COVID people with good computer skills were offered jobs and taken to scam compounds.
So, in some cases, it’s very cruel for both sides – even the name, ‘pig butchering’ and likening it to fattening up a pig for slaughter is just so repulsive.
However, it’s hard for me to think of the majority of romance fraudsters as victims. I’ve spoken to a couple of scammers and most of them are definitely not being trafficked. Sometimes it even becomes a racial issue. One scammer from Ghana told me it’s a way of getting back at the West for everything that’s happened to them over the centuries, which is a ridiculous excuse because he’s not putting the money into rebuilding parts of his home, he’s spending it on trainers and luxury goods.
Are there any anecdotes that have stuck with you and that you would like to share?
I’ve heard of people taking their own life, which you can understand if they’ve lost absolutely everything and are in the depths of depression. Some of the pig butchering scams, which leverage fake investment platforms are technologically very impressive. Regarding stories that have stuck with me, there was a lady who contacted me after seeing my Twitter and we spoke on the phone quickly after. She told me she had stage 4 cancer and had lost a fortune to this one guy. She knew that he was a fraudster; he’d admitted it, but she was still sending him money because she felt this bond with him.
I interviewed her, and then a few months later, as I was getting closer to submitting the book to the editors, I messaged her and asked if we could we meet up.
She replied and told me she was in a hospice, but that she really wanted to stay strong for the book launch, and I told her don’t worry, we can talk about this another time.
A few days later, I received a message from her Twitter account, and it was from her son saying his mum had passed away, but that he had seen our exchanges, and knew she had lost money. He wanted to know what on Earth had happened. I remember calling him at about 9pm one Friday night and explaining what had happened to his mum and where this money had gone. The saddest thing for me was how lovely her son was. He said how he wasn’t angry with his mum; he was just devastated that she hadn’t confided in him. It’s heartbreaking to think how many people don’t confide in family and friends when they will probably get the same understanding reaction. There is nothing to be ashamed or embarrassed about.
It’s a delicate balance to strike, between presenting this information in a relatable, digestible format, and in a way that undermines the danger and impact of romance fraud.
How did you decide the best way to set the tone in raising awareness of the scourge of romance fraud?
So, the feedback to the book has been exactly what I’d hoped it would be. People have said they’ve been able to digest it because it’s readable and funny, but I’ve also shared the victim stories, and explained what happens in some of the countries.
Humor to me is a really good way of bringing to life what can be quite a dry subject. Often when people talk about fraud, everyone in the room switches off, and so I think as long as it’s never seen as humor at the expense of the victims [which I’ve never been accused of], then it’s fine.
One thing that surprised me from researching for this interview you was the sheer number of ‘celebrity’ scams. This has never happened to me [yet!]. How common is it?
Well, I never received a message from a celebrity on a dating site, but Twitter and Instagram are crammed full of them. My book is called ‘Keanu Reeves is Not in Love with You’ because Keanu Reeves is not on any form of social media, and yet he is the most impersonated celebrity. Particularly on Twitter.
Something I always get asked is why anybody would send money to an apparent multi-millionaire. The fraudsters have come up with new ways of getting money from people under the guise of being a celebrity. One of the most common is that they will say they really want to meet the person, but their manager is a bit of a tyrant, and when the celebrity next comes to the UK, the manager wants to set up a series of meet and greets, all, of course, at a cost. Another effective approach is when they say that they are raising money for a charity. Then, even if you just send £10, you’re considered a viable target.
People exposing scams sometimes face repercussions. Do you ever fear for your safety?
I’ve had some death threats. Once, when a scammer asked me for money, I agreed and asked for him to send me his bank account details. Noticing it was registered in the United States, and obviously not his account, I contacted the bank and told them what it was being used for, and it was shut down. Obviously, as only a day had passed between him sharing his details with me and the account being closed, he knew it was my doing. So I received some horrific abuse and threats then.
However, as I’ve spent so long researching this topic, I’m aware that a lot of these fraudsters are outside of the UK so have never been too concerned. Having said that, a lot of people will have links to the UK, so I never take my safety for granted.
How much do you hold these platforms accountable? Do you pass on the scammers’ details to relevant authorities, and how involved are you in the prosecution etc? Do you think enough is being done to crack down on this type of fraud?
Well, I mean certainly more could be done. It’s difficult, Jody, because a lot of the fraudsters are very technologically advanced and always seem to be one step ahead. I also hold the social media platforms accountable. In Nigeria, romance scammers are called the Yahoo Boys, and they even have their own Facebook group with almost 13,000 active members. Now I’ve reported the page, as have many other people, to Facebook, but it’s never been taken down. When the key word of the group is categorically associated with fraud, how is that allowed to stay up?
Facebook should be 100% be held accountable. I think it’s outrageous. Twitter and Instagram are slightly better because they’re quite good at taking accounts down when they’re reported. However, all you need is for somebody to set up a new email address, and they’re straight back on.
Elon Musk removing the blue tick from Twitter is a fraudster’s dream. Suddenly you have an influx of people pretending to be celebrities who don’t need a blue tick anymore. I obviously hold the fraudsters most accountable, but I do think the platforms have a duty to be looking at this more carefully.
It’s pointless me pointing out Twitter profiles of people because they’ve been kicked off the platform before, and they don’t use their real names either. I’ve also been told by UK police that if a WhatsApp number, for example, is out of UK jurisdiction, there is pretty much nothing they can do.
40% of all crime in this country is fraud, and yet police dedicate just 1% of resources to combat it, so, they’re not going to use that 1% trying to find somebody overseas.
Certain platforms, such as LinkedIn are experimenting with an identity verification step, although it is not yet a mandatory requirement. Perhaps because they do not want to alienate their customer base?
Yes, some dating platforms also require an identity verification step, where you have to wave your hand to show you’re a living person; however, what’s to stop a fraudster just doing that? So, more can be done, absolutely. I know the CEO of the Online Dating & Discovery Association, and I do know that they take it very seriously, and steps are being taken. For example, if a fraudster is swiping right on every single woman’s profile in the hope that somebody connects, the ODDA will pick that up.
How much do you keep in contact with victims after they’ve messaged you?
I count three or four of them as friends now. A lot of these women that I speak to are people that I would naturally gravitate to. They are intelligent, interesting women, and people that I would like to be friends with, and they’re kind as well, and we could all do with some kind friends, couldn’t we?
Technology offers great opportunities to flag problematic behavior and identity users, thereby creating safer online environments, but it is also a double-edged sword. With the advent of AI-generated content like deepfakes, how optimistic are you regarding the future of romance fraud?
I fear for the future. A lot of romance fraudsters will pretend to be in the army or on an oil rig or a doctor or a surgeon working abroad, which they’ll use as an excuse for not being able to speak to somebody. This reluctance to video call can be a major red flag. But now, fraudsters will be able to transpose someone’s face over their own face and talk naturally. It’s terrifying.
If you’re interested in more insights from industry insiders and thought leaders from the world of fraud and fraud prevention, check out one of our interviews from our Spotlight Interview series below.
- Jinisha Bhatt, financial crime investigator
- Paul Stratton, ex-police officer and financial crime trainer
- David Birch, global advisor and investor in digital financial services
- Or, discover all about the rise of social media fraud, and how one man almost lost a million euros to a pig butchering scam in our blog, ‘The rise of social media fraud: How one man almost lost it all.’
Senior Content Manager at IDnow
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