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Can romance scam victims get their money back?

A woman sits at a desk looking at her laptop. She has her head in her hands
Cases of deception fraud are on the rise [Getty Images]

What are the chances of victims of financial scams getting their money back?

Carolyn Woods spoke to the BBC this week about her fears she will never see the money taken from her by notorious conman Mark Acklom.

In 2019, he pleaded guilty to defrauding her in an elaborate romance fraud and spent two years in jail in the UK. He admitted fraud worth £300,000, although Carolyn has always maintained she lost closer to £850,000.

Mark Acklom convinced Ms Woods he was an MI6 agent, property developer and businessman. He also promised to marry her, convincing her to part with every penny she had.

A case aimed at getting her money back is still working its way through the courts.

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However Ms Woods fears the length of time that has passed, and Mark Acklom’s criminal lifestyle, will make it hard for the authorities to recover anything.

She said: "I happen to believe he won’t have any assets in his name. He actually told me himself, ‘never have anything in your own name because somebody will come and steal it.’”

Cases of what are known as APP (authorised push payment) scams - where criminals get victims to transfer money online - rose 22% between the first half of 2022 and the same period in 2023.

But how likely are victims of fraud to see their funds returned?

I’ve been speaking to fraud experts. Their short conclusion is: more likely than you might think.

Here are five tips for getting your money back:

Better protection coming

New rules are being brought in on 7 October 2024, which mean banks will be obliged to quickly repay fraud victims up to £415,000.

The body behind the changes, the Payment Systems Regulator (PSR) says the new UK rules are “world leading”, and were ushered in through the Financial Services and Markets Act last year.

They require banks to repay victims within five days. Importantly though, there are some exceptions.

The new system covers victims of APP fraud. However, it only covers transactions to and from UK banks: people who pay money to fraudsters overseas will not be protected. Anyone found to be party to the fraud would also not be covered.

Crucially, it is not retrospective, so although there is some flexibility in the system, Carolyn Woods could not be repaid for the transactions in 2012.

The aim behind the changes is to push banks into increased monitoring and verification of transactions - making them less likely to happen in the first place.

Contact your bank first

Even before the new rules come in, your bank should be the first port of call if you realise you have been scammed.

Stuart McFadden runs Refundee, a business helping people to reclaim money after they have been defrauded.

He says there is often “very low awareness” of what is possible, and misleading information on the internet.

He said: “It really annoys me to be honest. People [online] just think they’re experts. But no - your money isn’t lost.”

A voluntary code of conduct introduced in 2019 made reclaiming money lost to fraudsters much easier, though it has been applied inconsistently.

So Mr McFadden says it pays to be aware of the rules - and to be persistent.

He said: “Banks are supposed to know the most common fraud trends, which absolutely includes romance fraud. They are expected to probe quite a bit with the aim of breaking the spell the person is under.

“Where this has happened - especially where the behaviour is unusual - you would be expecting the bank to intervene. If they don’t do that properly, you have a good chance of getting your money back.”

And if you are still not satisfied, you may be able to take the case to the Financial Ombudsman.

Ms Woods has already exhausted this route, with Barclays saying it will not refund her.

Getting money back in court

Ms Woods’ case is unusual as a romance fraud in that firstly she met the fraudster in person, and secondly there was a criminal conviction.

That means the authorities are able to pursue Mark Acklom’s assets through the courts via the Proceeds of Crime Act (POCA).

Professor Michael Levi, from Cardiff University, has been a fraud specialist since the 1970s.

He says convicted criminals have to prove their assets were legitimately obtained.

"In principle, they can then be ordered to pay compensation and confiscation. The compensation to the victim gets priority," he said.

A prison sentence can then be imposed if they don’t pay. But of course it all depends on whether they still have any assets.

“They might have just spent the money. They can get through an awful lot of money if they’ve spent it on gambling for example.

"But an order can be made for them to report income they acquire subsequently - and if they don’t they can be brought before the court.”

But despite the wide-ranging powers in POCA, Mr Levi says cases often do not recover as much money as they could - because financial investigators are in short supply and their work can be time-consuming and expensive.

“If we look a major scandals, it’s pretty hard to find out where the money went," he said.

"They might have hidden it very deeply, but a lot of it is just gone. Following the money trail is a very expensive thing. Resources are limited.

"I think it's unlikely [Ms Woods] will get all the money back. She may get some back depending on what the financial investigation finds," he added.

There is also the option of a civil prosecution, though the risk - and costs - can be extremely high.

Don’t get scammed twice

A recent development has been for criminals to target victims of fraud - and scam them again claiming they can help them get their money back.

It is known as recovery fraud - and is something Stuart McFadden from Refundee has seen many times.

“It is a big problem,” he says. “Anyone who approaches you first without you approaching them is pretty much certainly a scam.

“Anybody who tells you they’ve got your money and you just to pay a fee to release it is a scam.

"Anyone that asks you for money upfront is a scam.”

Don’t be afraid to talk

But the first step to getting your money back is always to open up and talk about it, according to Lisa Mills from Victim Support.

She said: “You often see a victim described as having fallen for a fraud, but you never see that in a crime like burglary.

"You don’t 'fall' for a burglary. Victim shaming is quite common in fraud.

“But fraud is the biggest-occurring crime type in the country. It’s not a niche crime."

She added: “I do this job with a passion but my ongoing frustration is that it’s talked about so disparagingly and so negatively.

"We need to be getting angry with the people who carry out the crimes, not the people impacted by it.

“You can talk to us about it or a trusted friend or family member. It’s better out than in.

"It’s [fraud] so common now, it’s not just you that this has happened to, unfortunately.

“Let’s keep talking and let’s get the power back into our own hands rather than the people who would do us harm.”

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