Why do victims fall for online romance scam?

By Diana Selck

“Its not the money, he took so much more than that. Really, these people are genius- es… this person he created was amazing.”

(Anonym)

Romance scam

In my previous post ‘Falling in love on the Internet – investigating online romance scam as a cybercrime with an interpersonal nature‘, I explained why cybercrime is often lacking to include criminal online phenomena that estimates online victimisation not only through data and monetary loss but also puts psychological and physical impact of victimisation in consideration.

Online romance scam can be understood as an growing phenomenon on the Internet, which lures mostly adults into an online relationship, which can develop over a period of weeks, months and even years. The relationship becomes so intense between two individuals, whom have only just met online that the victim would almost do anything to satisfy his or her partner. The stories told by the victims are often very similar pointing to the possibility of an organised and structured crime from abroad using the same methods and mechanism to make victims comply.

What is known about online romance scam?

Online romance scam seems to have surfaced around 2008 but can be considered as a cybercrime that has transferred into cyber space but existed before known as the romance letter scam. A podcasts shows that romance letter scam has existed already in the 1980s. In 2008, romance letter scam developed and transferred into virtual space using the fact that more and more individuals are looking for love online and thus expanding their social circles to meet this one last special person. The research of online romance scam has one problem, the wildly chosen terminology, making it more difficult to understand the crime of online romance scam while using terms such as sweatheart swindle, dating scam, romance fraud and love scam.

Looking at different models to explain victimisation of online romance scam

The only goal for cyber criminals is to extract money from victims by initiating a relationship. Britons have lost approx. £ 27 million in 2015, Americans lost a total of $82,315,378 in 2014. There are many more reports, estimating the amount of monetary loss of online romance scam. Consequently, victims of online romance scam are often double hit, not only loosing a great amount of money but also the leading consequences of the money loss and the loss of a relationship and a partner. Some victims are unable to process the truth even after they have been told that they most likely became victim of online romance scam. These victims are so drawn into their relationship that the realisation of financial loss does not have an impact on the continuation of their relationship with their scammers. In fact, some scammers use the interpersonal relationship they have created to start a second demand through a strategy that is called ‘second wave’ by Whitty (2013), describing how the scammer openly states that he is a scammer but claims to have fallen in love with the victims during the scam. Similar is this case of an 62-year-old woman from Sweden, who became victim of online romance scam, has met her scammer in person in Nigeria and pays now for his tuition for university.

While researching the phenomenon for my thesis, I stumbled over two models that explain how victims are drawn into fraudulent activities through persuasive psychological techniques. The first model I found was the model of ‘hooking on victims’ by Burgard and Schlemmbach (2013). They developed this approach to analyse victimisation regarding auction frauds and financial loss. According to them, there are certain steps that enable victimisation. Whitty (2013) has also written about seven stages that cyber criminals use in order to lure they victims into the scam. I combined both models, adding the findings of my research that showed which techniques were used by scammers to make their victims comply.
These steps are essential for cyber criminals and attempt to answer the questions why individuals fall for the scam in the first place.

Combining the stage approach by Whitty (2013), the hooking on principle of Burgard and Schlembach (2013) and my findings

There are three main stages victims experience. First of all the scammer finds an equally shared interest (1), in this case the want for an relationshiplove, intimacy, etc. Therefore the scammer presents the victim with the perfect match. Most often, the victim is presented by an individual of the same age group, very attractive, successful in business, often in military service or voluntarily work or as an international business man / woman. Often the scammer identifies him or herself with the victim very quick, e.g. points out same religious believessame activitieshobbies or being a single parent. In fact, my results show that a great majority of victims were single parents and targeted by scammers on dating websites explicitly for single parents.

The second stage, which is a very influencing one is the grooming stage (2). The grooming stage can be compared to grooming mechanism used for child grooming on the Internet, often referred to as cybergrooming or online grooming. Cybergrooming is exclusively considered as illegal when minors are involved for approaching children and adolescents online to initiate sexual abuse, which was already explained and differentiated by Thomas- Gabriel Rüdiger and me in the previous post. According to my findings and the two above-mentioned approaches, the grooming stage inherits three under-stages. First of all, the victims was triggered (2a). Victims have been very often given loads of attention, showered by love declarations, poems and other proves that the online parter has fallen in love with the victim. Followed by relationship forming (2b), victims started to fall in love as well. Scammers often established a routine, e.g. calling everyday at the same time, showing interest in daily activities of victim and hence establishing a relationship or hyperpersonal relationship. The hyperpersonal relationship is formed after a very short period of time and often experienced as very intense, isolating the victim from its normal surroundings and thus making it impossible for the victim to recognise social cues – risk awareness stage (2c). Scammers often create a sort of secrecy, using their position at the military and thus the need for cautions and secrecy. Scammers claim to not be allowed to show their faces or victims have to communicate through “diplomatic agents” in order to talk to their online love. All of this provides the perfect cover for the scammer and reduces the risk to be detected by the victim or victim’s friends and family. At the end of this stage, some scammer test victims compliance status, asking for small gifts such as “secure phones” that the scammer cannot buy himself because the military has frozen his or her accounts or the ex-wife has stolen all the money. If the victim complies and buys this gift or send a small amount of money, scammers will most likely move on to the next stage exposure (3).

At this point, online romance scam can become a bit blurry, developing into different forms of victimisation. Until now, scammers have established a relationship that does not give much room to doubt it, reduced all risk possibilities to be discovered as a scam and tested the victim for its willingness to comply and/or even received already a small amount of money. At this point, some relationships become very intimate. Due to the distant relationship, the online partner will asked for more intimacy by sending pictures and video in nude and sexual postures. Some scammers use this material to blackmail the victim if the victim did not pass the test and seem harder to convince to send money or gifts to the scammer. Therefore, online romance scam could develop into sextortionshowing that many hybrid forms of cybercrime exists. Demands could be for more money or more sexual material such as cam shows via webcam, pictures and videos of the victim.
Leading to the last stage, the sting (4), which is the stage in which victims comply, either because of love or due to blackmailing and fear of exposure. If the victim complies due to love, the scammer has succeeded to spin his net of narratives around the victim. The victim believed or still believes everything his or her online love tells the victim, even if the story of the scammer seems extremely absurd, the victim is not able and/or willing to recognise the scam – it is in denial.

Additionally, scammers often create a crisis they need immediate help with to resolve it. Some have been in an accident or diagnosed with cancer and need money for medical treatment, others asked to send the victim a package full of gold, expensive furnitures etc. and custom fees need to be paid in order to cross the borders. In some cases, scammers even involve a third person, most likely in an authoritative position such as a doctor who is calling to asked to pay the hospital bill and confirming the scammers story or diplomatic agents and military personnel. Usually, the already paid amount varies between a few hundred and several thousands dollars, which often seems still small compared to the amount the victim and his or her online partner will receive when everything goes through. In a way, this is starting the whole stage model all over, creating an equally shared interest, which is in this case money or want for love again. Because scammers often act fast, pretending to want to move in with victims and even get married, therefore victims agree to pay a fee to quicken the process of benefits allowance or shipping furniture over that are meant for the apartment in which victim and scammer will live together soon.
All in all, cybercriminals are skilfully maintaining the relationship, using the wants of lonely hearts for love, partnership, sexuality and intimacy to draw them into the scam.

In many cases it is incredibly hard, if not impossible to bring cybercriminals to court. This is especially underlined by the international and organised nature of this crime. Criminals are often from countries abroad such as from Nigeria, Ghana, Morocco Philippines and Malaysia. It is important for the future to raise awareness to the issue at hand. Users of dating websites, messenger app services and subscriber of webcam shows should be informed and educated of existing cyber threats in order to prevent to become victim of online romance scam, sextortion and hybrid forms of it.

Sources:
BURGARD A AND SCHLEMBACH C (2013) FRAMES OF FRAUD: A QUALITATIVE ANALYSIS OF THE STRUCTURE AND PROCESS OF VICTIMIZATION ON THE INTERNET. INTERNATIONAL JOURF NAL OF CYBER CRIMINOLOGY. VOL. 7(2): 112-124.

WHITTY MT (2013) THE SCAMMERS PERSUASIVE TECHNIQUES MODEL: DEVELOPMENT OF A STAGE MODEL TO EXPLAIN THE ONLINE DATING ROMANCE SCAM. BRITISH JOURNAL OF CRIMIF NOLOGY 53(4): 665–684.

Findings from my master thesis ‘Online flirting – too god to be true – an investigation of victimisation through romance scam and webcam blackmail’ – a qualitative study. The research was conducted during a time period of seven month in online forums that focus on online victimisation.

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