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Russian sanctions, Coronation Street's Norris Cole and an Instagram model: I set out to get conned by an internet romance fraudster

It started with Monica.

She was a 33-year-old optician from Kyiv who didn't care that I was 75 or that I had crippling arthritis which sometimes limited my emailed replies to a few lines.

Monica was a 33-year-old optician from Kyiv
Monica was a 33-year-old optician from Kyiv

She wasn't bothered that I looked exactly like Norris Cole from Coronation Street either. Or that I was calling myself Henry Hoover.

But then Monica wasn't who she said she was. And neither was I.

I'd embarked on a mission to get conned – To find love online before having my heart broken and bank account drained.

If successful I'd join the 248 lonely souls in Kent who were seduced out of £2.9 million last year, most of whom were between 40 and 70 and women - although a sense of shame probably means the actual figures are far higher.

And now, here I was, in a baggy t-shirt, the buzzing desk lamp making my brow sweat, craning my neck and squinting at the screen of my laptop, a bottle of beer within groping distance.

It's 10pm and my partner is in the room next door but I'm busy flirting with Korean/Ukrainian internet Monica while trying to find something, anything, which could give away her true identity.

Monica was good. She may have fallen for my soap-inspired alter-ego but her emails were almost convincing.

There were little details about her day-to-day life, her family and her Labrador named Bullet.

She confessed her deepest desires – enough at points to give poor Norris a heart attack – and said she wanted to come to Chatham to meet me, a widowed veteran suffering from severe loneliness.

At times I found myself questioning whether she was even a fraudster. Maybe she really was a lonely singleton looking love. Maybe I was the fraud.

Monica's first email to Henry
Monica's first email to Henry

A two-week romance fraud awareness campaign launched at the start of the year by City of London Police provided a bullet point list of things to look out for.

Fraudsters would move the conversation to text and wouldn't answer basic questions about themselves or provide details about their day-to-day lives.

But both the women I met online – more on the second later – were happy to keep our chats to email and both spoke at length about their jobs and social lives.

They sent lots of pictures and Monica even included short videos in which she confessed her love, albeit never addressing me by name.

A video sent by 'Monica'

Admittedly, she was reluctant to engage on the topic of the war in her home country, but that sort of made sense.

But the biggest give-away was her introduction, which was one of several in my junk folder that followed the same format – "I'm single interest 33 yo girlfriend waiting for agreeable not young dude! [sic]" Bizarrely, they were all from women called Monica using different email addresses.

And then, after three weeks, she disappeared.

As each day passed my hopes of continuing my romance with Monica and meeting my Valentine's Day deadline faded.

Research by the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau showed if I struck up a relationship between Christmas and February 14 I'd be more at risk.

But fraudsters will spend weeks gaining the trust of their victims, something I was finding out first hand.

The last time Monica went AWOL she resurfaced, apologetic, with tales of a weekend spent on a hen do with friends – no harm done – but this time things were different.

It crossed my mind that she may be in danger or that this may be part of an elaborate plan to part me with my perceived fortune.

She had not even asked me for money before she vanished. She was 100% fake but whether due to getting cold feet or being caught her, and to an extent my own, weeks of grafting were rendered fruitless.

With a twinge of sadness I decided it was time to move on.

I was back on the dating scene and immediately went crazy.

I logged back in to my old email account to find, buried among a flurry of emails telling me how to 'grow my manhood' or alleviate constipation, messages from new prospective partners. I fired off a dozen or so replies.

I emailed 'Irina Love', a 31-year-old "lonely lady" from Russia who lived with her mum, sister and cat Button and was known as Honey to friends.

But Irina was a poor man's Monica and was more careless.

A search of her photos' metadata revealed they were actually of a Russian Instagram model called Avrora Shreder.

Russian model Avrora Shreder was being impersonated by Irina
Russian model Avrora Shreder was being impersonated by Irina
An email from Irina
An email from Irina
An email from Henry to Irina - she didn't get the Coronation Street references
An email from Henry to Irina - she didn't get the Coronation Street references

There she was roller blading, posing alongside a Despicable Me minion and in St Petersburg's Hookah Box smoking bar.

The emails had been sent from a fine dining restaurant on Amsterdam's oldest canal (the Oudezijds Voorburgwal) and St. Stephen's Cathedral in Vienna. Except, of course, they hadn't.

IP addresses are slippery. A criminal would be more than foolish to use their actual address and even if they did the chances of it offering an accurate location are slim to none.

With Monica I went through this process and got excited when it led me to a national park in Kansas. To be precise, it said Monica was operating from the middle of Cheney Reservoir.

But she wasn't. The body of water was designated as a default US location in 2016 because the previous one in the nearby 'city' of Potwin was causing all sorts of bother for its 421 residents, with furious victims of online fraud turning up to remonstrate with the people who had fleeced them.

Cheney Reservoir in Kansas, where Monica was allegedly operating from
Cheney Reservoir in Kansas, where Monica was allegedly operating from

It was highly unlikely Monica was even in the US but as she'd ghosted me I didn't delve any deeper.

The cryptoclues buried in Irina's email headers were more promising – a series of ID numbers which matched those used by a group of European web developers.

Could they be Irina?

I contacted several experts to see if these strings of digits could solve the riddle, but they mostly did a Monica and ignored me.

Meanwhile, things were heating up between Irina and I. She told me she loved me, that I was an "angel" and that the American R&B singer Ne-Yo's 2008 hit 'Closer' was about us.

She said: "I am so happy that we found each other and so quickly got used to each other, feelings appeared… strong feelings... Kind, gentle, warm, caring feelings, from which a smile on your face and joyful eyes and a carefree heart. You are so dear to me! I am writing you a letter and I miss you more and more. I want to hug, kiss."

Her emails were building up to a crescendo. "God meant us to be together", she said, while planning to meet me.

She got impatient at my occasionally tardy responses: "Hello!! I want to bake you pancakes with condensed milk and berries for breakfast :) This is extraordinarily delicious! Where are you lost? You did not write to me ... I would like to talk to you every day. Please do not forget about me, write to me again !! I look forward to your posts tomorrow! I hope I succeed :))"

And then she asked me the $850 question: Would I wire her that exact amount for her tickets from Moscow to Stansted on an unspecified date?

"I will!" I said. "Great!" She said.

She told me to send the money via Western Union to Irina Iurevna Striapunina who was living at a 24/7 pharmacy in the Russian city of Tambov, 260 miles south-east of Moscow.

She would later send me a mobile number registered in a completely different part of Russia – although I'm not sure that means anything.

But before I could devise a response she'd emailed again to say due to sanctions on Russia Western Union was no longer an option and I should instead send the smaller amount of $425 to the account of her sister, Natalya Vyacheslavovna Platova, at Moscow-based Tinkoff Bank.

Irina claimed to live in a pharmacy in the city of Tambov
Irina claimed to live in a pharmacy in the city of Tambov

Most romance fraudsters ask for less than Irina, often in the low hundreds, but I wonder why.

If I really was lonely widower Henry Hoover with cash to spend and nowhere to spend it I don't think the cost of the potential romance would put me off.

Indeed, for most victims of this type of scam it's the loss of the lover rather than the money that upsets them most.

I go cold on Irina.

"Hello hello!" she messages.

And: "You are silent again... Can't you find 5 minutes to write to me? I miss you Henry. I really want to talk to you as much as possible, you are my angel... Today is my last day of work, so in the evening I will go to the village to my mother, I hope you will answer me by Monday. I hug."

The thought of a con artist – in my head a man – angrily typing prompts to 'Henry Hoover' while waiting for their $425 makes me smirk.

I also wonder if this is really all worth it for them.

True, they're unlikely to ever be caught but Irina's spent hours seducing me online and all for $425.

I've been sucked in. Shamefully, I actually think she's only emailing me, but Googling segments of her messages shows at various points over the past few years she's sent identical emails to other prospective partners, sometimes even attaching a fake scan of a passport.

Across the UK cases of romance fraud increased by 20% in 2020, with criminals raking in £68m by perpetrating a type of crime now more prevalent than online shopping fraud.

Lockdown blues contributed to those figures, with singletons unable to get out and about logging on in their droves.

One in three relationships now start online and a quarter of those looking for love on the internet report being catfished (tricked by someone impersonating someone else).

Estimates suggest one in seven dating profiles are now fake.

The brief thought that Henry was somehow getting special attention was extraordinarily naive of me.

I think about Monica again.

Who is the woman in the photos?

Numerous reverse searches and metadata hunts are fruitless. Is she in on it? If not, does she know someone has stolen her identity to con old men?

I can't ask her so I messaged the real Irina, Avrora Shreder.

"Did you know internet romance fraudsters are using your picture to dupe elderly men into sending them money?" I said.

I send her screenshots and she responds: "It's disgusting. I'm angry. Can I sue them for this?

"It's really disgusting, they defame my honour. I'm not on any dating site."

On the face of it Avrora, with her good looks and 64,000 Instagram followers, doesn't seem like a big part of this story but it strikes me that she too is a victim.

In fact, in this scenario she's the only victim.

Sadly, I don't think Avrora has much chance of being able to sue because, as Samantha Cooper tells me, the number of romance fraudsters eventually unmasked is negligible.

While most experts gave me the cold shoulder Sam is happy to talk and help find Irina.

She began investigating romance fraudsters in 2014 and runs Rogue Daters, which seeks to stop people being conned by checking if their internet lovers are who they say they are.

She tells me very few perpetrators are caught and as if to prove the point after analysing Irina's emails her team draws a blank.

Irina is using Outlook which makes tracing senders particularly hard. The closest they can get is that she's most likely in the EU.

And while those behind Irina evade justice people like Avrora can end up being confronted by heart-broken victims who wrongly think they're involved.

Sam says for this reason it's crucially important to stop the fraudsters before it's too late.

She's at pains to point out how the vast majority of people looking for love online are genuine.

Her stories of past clients who are left so heartbroken when they realise they've fallen for a fraudster they turn their back on romance for good are genuinely tragic.

But it's not just empathy these people deserve, it's respect.

As Sam says: "Victims are not vulnerable people. They're not stupid people. They're not uneducated people. The common trait I see is they are too kind and too trusting."

I invented Henry – the gullible, lonely old man – with an unfair preconception of the average victim.

Technology has progressed to the point where things which would have been believable five years ago – videos for example – can easily be faked. It is increasingly difficult to distinguish between fact and fiction online.

Getting to the point where victims don't feel judged will mean more come forward, which will in turn help educate people about what to look out for.

That seems like the only feasible way to banish the Irinas of the world.

After my conversation with Sam I email Irina one last time: "Irina, I know that’s not your real name. I know you’re using pictures of an Instagram model. I know you’ve lied to me throughout this and I’ve lied to you too. My name isn’t Henry, I’m not 75 and I’m not looking for love. I’m a journalist and I am writing about romance fraud. I’m interested to know who you really are but failing that why you do what you do and how long you’ve been doing it? Let me know."

"I'm upset with your words, so you've been deceiving me all this time, but I fell in love with you! And it’s even more offensive that you don’t believe me and say that it’s not me and not my data," she replies.

It's the end of our relationship.

To report fraud contact Action Fraud via their website, or by calling 0300 1232040. You can also contact Kent Police by clicking here or by calling 101. In the event of an emergency, or if a crime is in progress, always call 999. Incidents can also be reported to the independent charity Crimestoppers on 0800 555111 or by completing its online form.

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