Murder exposes a darker side of middle-aged online dating
The killing of Helen Bailey highlights the dangers women can face when meeting men online, writes Alix O'Neill
He was meant to be her happy ever after - a fairytale ending for the prolific children's author consumed by grief. When Helen Bailey's husband of 22 years drowned on holiday in Barbados in 2011, her world crumbled. Then she met Ian Stewart (58), a "gorgeous, grey-haired widower", on an online bereavement group.
He had lost his wife and quickly they bonded over what they had both been through. Within a year, Stewart had proposed. The couple moved to Royston, Hertfordshire, and set up home in a seven-bedroom mansion. Bailey even changed her will so her fiance would inherit almost all of her €4.7m fortune if she died before they married. She was worried he would be left vulnerable if their paperwork wasn't in order.
But their cosy domesticity was short-lived. Last July, Bailey (51) was discovered in a cesspit underneath the house, alongside the remains of her faithful dachshund, Boris. Her body was so badly decomposed she had be identified by her dental records.
Last week, Stewart was sentenced to 34 years in jail for Bailey's murder. The jury heard how he had been secretly drugging his partner with zopiclone, a sleeping medication, for weeks before suffocating her. Later that day, he watched his eldest son, Jamie, play bowls, taking him back home for a post-match Chinese takeaway. Afterwards, he changed a standing order from Bailey's bank account to the couple's joint account, switching the amount from £600 to £4,000.
In the months that followed (Stewart told concerned relatives Bailey had left a note saying she "needed some space") he renewed Arsenal season tickets and even flew to Spain for a holiday he had booked with his wife-to-be.
The grim final chapter in the life of a woman described by family as "immensely witty and talented" has once again exposed the seedy underbelly of the digital world. This time, however, it's not the online exploitation of children that's raising alarm bells - research suggests older women are, in fact, the internet's most vulnerable.
This becomes even more apparent when they are going through difficult emotional times which come with this life-stage, such as divorce or bereavement, when usual good judgment may not be so finely tuned and a lot of very personal information can be unloaded very quickly if they find someone to trust.
"The most successful scams are carried out on women between the ages of 40 and 60," says psychologist Emma Kenny, who explores the perils of internet dating in a TV documentary, Dated to Death, to be broadcast next month.
"Increasingly, older men are going out with much younger partners. A lot of middle-aged women find themselves incredibly lonely and this emotional vulnerability can cause them to make bad choices. Quite often, a woman will go for someone who validates her, and she might reveal a lot of personal information early on, which enables predators."
The number of people defrauded by online dating schemes has hit a new high, according to the UK's National Fraud Intelligence Bureau - last year, almost 4,000 victims of 'romance fraud' handed over a staggering £39m. Forget the well-worn trope of the wealthy widow conned overseas by an unscrupulous lothario you could see coming a mile off - the danger has now moved closer to home, and can be much harder to spot.
'Nancy', a 37-year-old single mother, was duped out of €350,000 by Marcello, a man she met on match.com. Within days, the attractive Italian, who claimed to be Manchester based but working in Turkey, persuaded 'Nancy' to move their conversations to an instant messaging service. After six weeks, he asked for a loan for his son, who needed surgery.
"It escalated unbelievably quickly, so straight away it was the medical fees, then money for food, rent and taxes to get them out of Turkey," said 'Nancy', who is now facing bankruptcy.
"I wasn't comfortable, and then I got in so far I couldn't get myself out. You keep going in the hope this person is genuine."
It's not just the betrayal of trust women like 'Nancy' have to endure - a number of female victims of so-called 'love scams' claim to have been excoriated for their perceived naivety. Like Bailey, the casualties are often smart, successful women who under other circumstances would know better.
One 68-year-old university professor I spoke to declined to be interviewed after she was trolled for publicly admitting to giving £140,000 to a con artist she met on a dating site. "People haven't a clue how clever and sophisticated these men and their scams are," she told me.
Those who have suffered an emotional trauma, like a divorce or bereavement, are particularly susceptible to grooming, says Kenny. "My friend is widowed, so I checked out a couple of support forums for her. You could tell that not everyone on there had lost a spouse. It's awful to say, but trust no one."
"It's truly astonishing how much time and effort fraudsters will invest in building a relationship with someone," says Tony Neate, CEO of Get Safe Online.
"Starting a new relationship at a difficult time in your life can prevent you from noticing the signs of something more sinister. It is this vulnerability that they prey on, which makes it ever so important to talk to your friends and family about your experiences online. They might spot something suspicious you don't. Even if you feel you have become close to someone on the internet, you must remember that they are still a stranger."
It is also sensible to check the privacy settings on all of your social media accounts to ensure that people can't easily fish for details about your private life which they can exploit further down the line.
Of course, for the majority, support forums provide a tremendous source of comfort during the worst of times. It was through a Widowed and Young Facebook group that 'Annie' (42) met her partner, 'Andrew'. They've been together for three and half years.
"You can't assume that because someone has been through the same thing as you, they're somehow 'safe', but I did feel like I got the measure of 'Andrew' pretty quickly," says 'Annie'. "People have made a lot out of the fact that [Bailey and Stewart] met on a widows' group but I think that's irrelevant. Sadly, you can meet bad people anywhere. I don't think there was any way she could have known."