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Beware, Net blondes on the prowl to con

London, Feb. 2: A little advice for men who like to frequent Internet dating chatrooms.

If you find yourself on the brink of a steamy cyber-relationship with a woman who looks like a model, talks only about herself and is strangely secretive about her job there are only two explanations.

Either you’ve found yourself a genuine Page 3 girl desperate for a relationship with a slightly overweight, socially inept man, or you are about to become the latest victim of a very 21st-century honey trap.

The odds are not in your favour. Fraud experts say criminals increasingly use online dating services, posing as young attractive women to rip off gullible men.

Once they have the victim’s trust ' and for some men that can take only a few minutes ' they ask for money, either for travel expenses or because they have just been robbed.

While an optimist would hope that men were too intelligent to fall for such an obvious confidence trick, the reality is that many do not.

The Office of Fair Trading says about 28 million adults are targeted every year by fraudsters. While most people spot the tricks, a significant minority is caught out.

With the crooks thought to rake in about '1 billion a year, the OFT launched a campaign yesterday to fight back against the growing problem of mass marketed “scams”.

“Consumers who lose money to scams have very little chance of getting any of it back,” said John Fingleton, the OFT’s chief executive.

“It is essential that in addition to enforcing the law against scammers, that we equip consumers with the skills and knowledge necessary to avoid falling victim to them in the first place.”

Fraudsters are also exploiting the option of “text flirting” to trick mobile phone owners out of money, the OFT said. They send messages purporting to be from a secret workplace admirer and inviting them to call back for a date. But the number they are given is an expensive 090 premium rate one.

Like most frauds the online dating and text flirting ones succeed because they appeal to the victim’s vanity.

In the past few years, thousands of people have received e-mails that they have won a Canadian or the Spanish El Gordo lottery. People have lost up to '300,000 as fraudsters ask for money to meet local taxes before their huge prizes are released. They never are.

Elderly people are targeted, using information bought from direct marketing companies to offer “health scams”.

Gerry Sutcliffe, the British minister for consumer affairs, said the government was working with the OFT to catch such fraudsters. “Campaigns like this show how important it is for everyone to know how to spot a scam. They don’t just target the gullible. A scam artist can fool anyone.”

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