‘Many criminals working similar scams will help each other.It’s primarily small groups of disenfranchised young men – poverty-stricken, ill-educated – finding it virtually impossible to get regular work and make any sort of living.

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Victims typically lose from £50 to a couple of hundred to several thousand pounds, but some individuals have been taken for over £275,000.’ Mr Woodcock, who was awarded the MBE in 2009 for services to law enforcement, has devoted two years to exposing rom scams – many of which operate from Ghana and Nigeria.

He said: ‘We are seeing a great deal more romantic scamming.

They typically pay subscription fees with stolen or cloned credit card details – and act quickly to inveigle their way into long-distance ‘love affairs’ over the net. Once a relationship is established, they’ll move in for the sting.

This can be an elaborate ruse lasting weeks – perhaps they will concoct a trip abroad and later a sudden crisis that leaves them in urgent need of cash.

‘They frequent internet cafes, witness what others are up to and get involved.

Someone learns how to do it, teaches others and it develops into something of a franchise.

She answered his calls for help with bills, school fees and getting his ‘son’ out of military prison.

Police managed to trace some of the money to accounts in Nigeria and California and recovered just over £13,000. The fraudsters register with dating websites using false identities and photos of good-looking people culled from the web. They know, after all, that most members of the dating site wouldn’t be there unless they were lonely and vulnerable.

‘There is no world capital of heartless scamming,’ said Mr Woodcock. Thanks to the West African diaspora it also goes on in hundreds of other locations, according to information reaching the National Fraud Reporting Centre – anywhere that the internet can be accessed routinely.

‘We work closely with colleagues in African countries to intercept tens of thousands of letters in circulation.

I know of two suicides which occurred as a direct result of romance scamming. Taking their own lives must have seemed easier than owning up to having got it so wrong’.