By Emma, a Prisoners Abroad caseworker

Every day at Prisoners Abroad, we see enquiries about new cases. Some of these might be short-term detentions, and soon they will be released from custody with a fine or caution. Some of them might become long-term cases. But on occasion, all might not be as it seems… Prisoners Abroad has noticed an increase in enquiries about people being arrested overseas, where the detainees in question later turn out to be entirely fictional.

Being arrested overseas is a common story that online scammers use when they have befriended someone online through social media or an online dating site. They ask their victims for funds to pay their fines, or lawyers, or secure their release. Sometimes people transfer large sums of money, only for the person with whom they thought they were in a serious relationship – even engaged - to suddenly cease all contact.

It's not always immediately obvious to the caseworkers in the Prisoner and Family Service which cases are scams and which aren’t. But there are red flags we can look out for, that suggest a possible scam:

  • The detainee is reported to be a wealthy, good-looking British/American/European citizen with a very respectable job (often in engineering, law, finance or armed forces).
  • They are in detention: because their assets are frozen, and they face an unexpected bill (such as for tax or hospital fees), or because of a visa issue. They always promise to pay back whatever money they are sent within days.
  • They are actively communicating with the scam victim via WhatsApp/Facebook Messenger or similar – in real cases, very few people have access to their phone in the early stages of detention.
  • A ‘lawyer’ might suddenly contact the victim, but will give few details, and will also use less conventional modes of communication such as WhatsApp. They will make demands for money.
  • The person who contacts Prisoners Abroad, often worried or distressed about the welfare of their friend, has never met the detainee in real life and has only communicated with them online.
  • In any case like this, we urge people not to send money until they have verified the story through official channels. Where the detainee is supposedly British, we advise contacting the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office so that they can make enquiries about whether a British citizen has been arrested in that country. It is also possible for them to quickly establish if a person with that name and date of birth is a genuine British passport holder or if the details are likely to be fraudulent.

The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office can be contacted on 020 7008 5000 if you are in this position and want to check if a situation concerning an alleged British citizen is genuine. If the person is not purporting to be British, the relevant embassy in the country of detention should be approached to ask if they can make similar enquiries.

We are also unfortunately aware of people who have been persuaded by scammers to travel overseas and - unwittingly - commit an offence such as transporting drugs, believing themselves to be in a relationship with a person online who ends up not being who they say they are.

More information about this type of scam, including how to report it, can be found here:

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