Falling in love on the Internet – investigating online romance scam as a cybercrime with an interpersonal nature

Meeting strangers online

In 2015, 3.17 billion people have accessed the Internet. Considering that the worlds population at this time was around 7.2 billion, I’d say coverage of the Internet has become pretty big.

Even though, information and communication technologies (ICTs) have become ubiquitous, it is more the young generation, often referred to as ‘digital natives’, that we think of when considering usage of new technologies. Nevertheless, young adults, middle-aged and elderly are taking over the whole ‘let’s meet, talk, interact online sphere’, using online dating platforms more than ever. In fact, the generation 50 years and older, is the one age group that has increased tremendously. One reason could be that middle-aged and elderly that are bound to a certain place, e.g. work place and kids schools and environment, have restricted opportunities to meet new partners. Another is that after separation of a long relationship, some might experience social isolation due to the fact that the social surroundings and former friends have decided for the other half.

All if this might seduce individuals to expand their ways of finding someone special. It is noteworthy, that adults are not only using online dating but also text messaging apps, video chat platforms and social media. All of them, provide a great chance of meeting someone that could be the one and only.

Cybercrime and varied considerations in research

This leads us to the fact, that individuals that are seeking relationships and intimacy online might have an increased vulnerability to become victim of cybercrime.

Cybercrime is this sort of crime in which someone is assisted by or means of a computer, a computer network, web-based ICTs or the Internet to commit an illegal act. Cybercrime therefore can found in three different ways: (1) against the computer by planting a virus (2) a traditional crime has been transformed through online technologies to an online crime (3) the pure cybercrime that is only possible through computers, computer networks, web-based ICTs and the Internet.

When talking about cybercrime, we often speak about denial of service (dos), cyber terrorism, credit card fraud, hacktivism and identity theft and thus, a crime that affects us financially and extracts personal information. Cybercrime is almost exclusively estimated by financial and data loss and how much threat it poses to individuals, organisations and governments. In fact, there are so many myriad forms of cybercrime that the impact of victimisation such as feeling embarrassed, violated, guilty, stupid, heart-broken and experiencing physical consequences such as panic attacks, sleeplessness, anxiety problems as well as long-term low-selfesteem and trust issues seem almost to minimal to consider for researchers. Not only have researchers put little to none attention to becoming victim of a cybercrime was an interpersonal nature as an adult, also has cybercrime generally a great problem of underreporting and therefore dark figures can be unknowingly high.
Imagine you thought you loved someone you met over the Internet some months ago and now it turns out to be a scammer from abroad, most likely from Ghana or Nigeria or Malaysia? How would you feel, realising that this person only wanted your money andknew exactly what buttons to press?

Online romance scam

First of all, online romance scam is considered to be a scam, fraud, in a way a swindle that tricks you into something such as paying money while presenting you with a certain good/service or want. Sometimes it is also referred to as the dating fraud or romance scam. As ActionFraud states it so nicely on their website:

Dating or romance fraud is when you think you’ve met your perfect partner online, but they aren’t who they say they are. Once they’ve gained your trust, they ask for money for a variety of emotive reasons.” (http://www.actionfraud.police.uk/fraud-az-romance-scams)

Yes, this is usually the story but much more complex than this above-stated description. First of all, a majority of victims are female, middle-aged or elderly. All of them have been looking for a serious or long-term relationship and were presented with an ideal partner. Scammers who trick their victims are most of the time very smart about it. They present the victim with the perfect match, showing interests and life situations that scammer and victim have in common. Often victims were single parents and met their scammers on dating websites for single parents. Therefore, cybercriminals would understand how difficult it can be to find the right partner. Many victims described their emotional status and thus their psychological well-being at the time of first contact as not good, experiencing loneliness, a recent death, unemployment, etc. Therefore, receiving additional attention, love declarations and things that victims haven’t heard for a long time, was one technique to flatter and therefore draw victims in.

As first contact was established, scammers started to become an important part in victims lives. While showing interest in victims day-to-day performances as well as the well-being of the victims’ children, a routine was set up by the scammers, which would lead to an intrusion in victims’ lives that they welcomed and actually waited for.

Surprisingly, victims of online romance are almost exclusively scammed for money, a majority of victims stated that they were financially not well-off. Scammers were told from the beginning that some victims did not have much money but were scammed nevertheless.

Impact of victimisation 

It is extremely important to recognise not only the money loss but also the psychological as well as physical affects, victims are experiencing. Individuals that are suffering from victimisation through online romance scam are often ‘double hit’. First of all, they have been de-frauded and lost a great amount of money. In some cases victims lost several hundred to several thousand of Dollars. But secondly, and more importantly, victims lost their relationships, their partner they have spent several weeks, months or even years but never met in person. Many victims are heart-broken, in shock, feel sick, feel guilty and violated after they realise that they have become victims. In future relationships, they will not trust as easily as they have done with their scammer. Many victims experiencing a low self-esteem, panic attacks, anxiety as well as sleeplessness after victimisation.

How do I know all of this? 

I am a German criminologist living in Malmö, Sweden. I just finished a 1 year online research on online romance scam and webcam blackmail / sextortion. I have collected data in online forums specifically focusing on online victimisation of scam and fraudulent activities. Data was collected over a time period of 7 months, resulting in the collection of 57 self-reports of victims that fulfilled the research criteria. Through content analysis and the help of the software MaxQDA and new insights could be won. I am also managing this page to raise awareness on interpersonal cybercrimes such as the above mentioned ones: https://www.facebook.com/researching.cybercrime/

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