Why cyber grooming is not so different to the process of ‘hooking on’​ victims of online romance scam

By Diana Selck

“How can this have happened, the man that i had got to know over the last few months was so caring, cried when watching sad films, was deeply troubled by the death of the soldiers who were killed or injured alongside him!!!”

(#Anonym1)

Becoming victim of online romance scam is not just tricking the victim into it, it is a skillfully prepared strategy – often referred to as social engineering. Online romance scam can be understood as a scam that often occurs on online dating sites, messenger apps and social media sites. The victim is presented by a perfect partner and is in the belief to have met a potential – permanent – relationship – material – kind – of – guy. The online love is always from abroad and after several weeks or months, the online partner creates a personal crisis in which he or she needs financial help from the victim to resolve the crisis. After receiving the money, the online love disappears, the victim realises it has been de-frauded and became victim of a scam. Money has been sent based on a successful formed relationship between scammer and victim. In my last post ‘Why do victims fall for online romance scam?’, I tried to underline the mechanism cybercriminals use to draw in their victims. As previously described, scammers use certain strategies or stages to de-fraud victims. Stages that I have recognised through previous research conducted by Whitty (2013) and Burgard & Schlembach (2013) as well as my own research were:

[1] Share equal interest – e.g. a want for a relationship

[2] Grooming

[3] Exposure (optional) – e.g. using intimate imagery of the victim to blackmail and raise pressure in order to pay money

[4] The sting – the victim has been de-frauded and sent money

Nowadays, it is extremely simple to create an ad or profile online to seek something or someone or claim to offer something. Therefore, finding an equally shared interest during a time of online auction services (eBay, craigslist, etc.), dating websites and social media sell & buy groups is an easy task for cybercriminals. The grooming stage on the other hand is rather complex, going through several steps in order to successfully move on to the next stage.

Cyber grooming practices 

While researchers have been focusing on children and adolescents that became victim of cyber grooming, certain techniques can be recognised to also groom adult victims and either de-fraud them for money or blackmail them for more sexual imagery (which is a hybrid form of online romance scam and sextortion). Cyber grooming can be generally understood as initiating sexual abuse of children through the use of information and communication technologies (ICTs) such as social media platforms and online games. Sexual perpetrators are aiming for extorting children for more sexual imagery or even pressuring them into meeting them in person for abusive sexual acts. The grooming and thus relationship forming with the child is divided in several stages which the sexual perpetrator works through in order to make the child comply while assessing the risk to be detected.

O’Connel (2003) has recognised several stages in child grooming, which describe common online grooming practices:

[1] Friendship forming

[2] Relationship forming

[3] Risk assessment 

[4] Exclusivity stage 

[5] Sexual stage

First of all, after finding a possible child victim, sexual offenders are usually pretending to want to get to know the child. This is called friendship forming stage, in which the child is asked questions and sometimes even asked for pictures. The offender want to ensure if the child really is a child and if it fits his or her predilections. Also, if the perpetrator lives in the same geographical area, the child can be identified with the help of the picture. Secondly, the first stage will be extended into the relationship formingstage, in which perpetrators shows interest in school topics and day-to-day activities of the child. This strengthen the illusion of becoming the best friend of the child and also enables the perpetrator to assess possible risks of detection. The child will answer questions that help to prevent detection and thus moves to the next stage called risk assessment. In this stage, the sexual perpetrator will ask questions such as where the computer of the child is located, in order to find out if other persons such as parents, siblings or other supervisors are nearby and might be able to discover the relationship between child and perpetrator.

During the fourth stage – exclusivity stage – the tempo and direction of the conversation between child and offender changes to more personal topics. The perpetrator relates to a strongly shared relationship and thus an intense mutuality is established. Due to this, the offender brings up the ‘trust card’, in which the child often complies and announces his or her trust towards its online friend. The relationship will be kept secret as asked of the child. After trust has been established, conversations turn more and more intimate and sexual and hence lead into the last stage – the sexual stage. The child’s boundaries might be pushed but as O’Connel (2003) describes it, they are pushed gently. The sexual perpetrator can choose now, either the relationship remains online and he or she takes the role of a mentor, showing and describing the child which sexual acts to do on themselves to sent pictures or videos of. Or the offender will ask the child for a face-to-face meeting with the intention of sexual abuse.

Online grooming techniques used for de-frauding online romance scam victims

Similar techniques are evident in cases of online romance scam. Victim and cyber criminal exclusively meet online. Pictures are either exchanged through the set up profile on a dating website or a social media account or requested through email or text messengers. Through dating profiles, victims can be filtered by gender, age, leisure time preferences and parental status and thus scammers have a easy job to relate to the victim. In my research for my thesis, many victims explained how the scammers and the victim had so much in common. This was either the religious belief, being a single parent or other hobbies, thus friendship was formed. Additionally, scammers often claimed to be in a trustworthy position such as military or aid workers, which enabled a certain level of trust from the beginning. After sympathy was formed, expectations were met and the victim was presented with the perfect match; the scammer would move on to the relationship forming. Similar to the child grooming, the cybercriminal would show interest in victims day-to-day activities and even establish routines such as calling or messaging at the same time, every day.

“Start talking, he (or she, of course) is always so kind, caring, loving you start to live in waiting to see if he wrote you, and imagination makes its way into your everyday life.”

(#Anonym2)

The scammer would ask about victims’ children and underline his or her potential as a perfect partner. After the scam, many victims explained that the relationship became so intense that they isolated themselves during that time from friends and family. Some victims stated that they might have seen the red flags as signals but were unable to address them. This might be the result of the scammer’s risk assessment abilities. Scammers often create a hyper personal relationship, which makes it very difficult for victims to recognise social cues. Many victims, even after the scam, did not share their relationship or experience of victimisation with friends or family.

“More that I hoped more than anything he was real. What does that make us, that we want that from soemone we’ve never met? That we can ignore the red flags in our head, that if one of our friends came to us and told us they were involved in something like this we’d tell them they were crazy.”

(#Anonym3)

Some victims explained, that when questioned, scammers reacted angry and even aggressive and thus victims dropped their concerns. The same exclusivity stageundergone by children, adult victims experienced through online romance scam. As mentioned before, many scammers claimed to be in the military and thus created some sort of secrecy around them. Due to their position in the military, victims were not able to see their faces through video chat or hear their scammers’ voices through the phone. Often the military was the reason why scammers could not show their face or talk to the victim on the phone. If victims would have been able to see or hear their online love, obvious differences in looks or accents would have given the scam away. Nevertheless, the relationship was deepened in this stage, suggestions of marriage or moving together were made in order to draw the victim even deeper into the scam. The last stage, the sting – or sexual stage in child grooming – are both final stages in which the victim is pushed gently but steady towards de-frauding. In most cases, online romance scam victims are de-frauded for money, in some cases money muling or even blackmailed for sexual acts through pictures or webcam.

Regarding the similarities between both considered techniques, I’d like to share two thoughts on it. First of all, it is noteworthy to consider that cyber grooming and its child victims and online romance scam and its adult victims are different crimes operated by different cybercriminals/ sexual offenders. In the case of cyber grooming, individual sexual perpetrators are attempting to initiate sexual abuse of a child and thus exploit it. Online romance scam on the other hand can be both – committed by individual criminals or organised and structured group also referred to as Nigerian scam. This is due to the already known criminal activities of groupings specialised on online romance scams and webcam blackmail from African countries such as Ghana, Nigeria or Morocco and/or the Philippines and Malaysia.

And secondly, I believe that knowledge from research of cyber grooming can be put in consideration when researching online romance scam. As the above-listed comparison shows, information for education and future prevention can be drawn from cyber grooming techniques and thus will help to gather more detailed insights for all interest groups combating romance scam and its victimisation, be it victims, law enforcement agencies and/or researchers.

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.

O’CONNELL R (2003) A TYPOLOGY OF CYBER SEXPLOITATION AND ONLINE GROOMING PRACTICES. PRESTON: UNIVERSITY OF CENTRAL LANCASHIRE.

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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