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The Psychology Of The Online Dating Romance Scam

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The Psychology of theOnline Dating RomanceScamResearch undertaken at The University of Leicester supported by anESRC grant RES-000-22-4022.Principal Investigator: Professor Monica Whitty (University ofLeicester)Co-investigator: Dr. Tom Buchanan (University of Westminster)Report compiled: April, 2012

ContentsAcknowledgements3Executive Summary4Introduction5Study 18Study 211Study 316Advice20References222

AcknowledgementsSpecial thanks needs to go to the following: ESRC: for funding the project SOCA (The Serious Organised Crime Agency, UK): for the knowledge they imparted that helpedshape the project, the introduction to victims, their time and support. Parship.co.uk: for access to participants in the project. Advisory board: Professor Bill Dutton, Professor Martin Gill, SOCA, and Parship. Barbs: from the online dating support group, who provided access to victims and their stories. Victims: for the time they gave us telling their stories.3

Executive Summary This report summaries a year-long project, led by Professor Whitty, which examined theonline dating romance scam. The three main aims of the project were to: identifypsychological characteristics of individuals which raise their risk of becoming victims;examine the persuasive techniques employed to scam victims of the online dating romancescam; examine the psychological consequences of being a victim of the online datingromance scam. Drawing from the qualitative work conducted in the project a summary of the anatomy ofthe scam is made. Study 1 considered the types of people more at risk of this scam. The only finding was thatthose high in romantic beliefs were more likely to be victims, in particular those who have ahigh tendency toward idealisation of romantic partners. Contrary to statistics gained on thereporting of this crime, middle-aged women were not more likely to be victims of thiscrime. Study 2 examined the three main objectives of the project. This study examined 200 posts ona public online peer support group. Some victims wrote they had previous abusiverelationships. The fake profile contained stereotypical characteristics that men and womenlook for in a potential mate. Through the use of ICTs ‘hyperpersonal relationships’ weredeveloped. The ‘Scammers Persuasive Techniques Model’ is developed here to explain thesuccess of these scams. A range of psychological impacts is also reported. Study 3 examined the three main objectives of the project. In-depth interviews wereconducted with 20 victims. Most of the women had experienced a highly abusiverelationship earlier in their lives. Some of the men reported a history of mental healthproblems. Further support was found for the ‘Scammers Persuasive Techniques Model’. Inaddition, it was found that victims were also drawn in because of the ‘unconditionalpositive regard’ displayed by the criminal. Victims experienced a double hit from the loss ofmonies and the loss of a relationship. Victims found it very difficult to let go of therelationship and visualise that it was not real even when they believed they had beenscammed. Victims went through the stages of grieving after learning they had beenscammed and those in denial were vulnerable to a second wave of the scam. This report concludes by providing advice to online dating companies, law enforcement,policy makers and health professionals. Online dating companies need to make informationabout the scam visible on their sites. Others need to be aware that victims are vulnerableand special care needs to be taken when the news is broken to victims.4

Introduction230,000 people may havefallen victim to romancefraudsters in Great Britainalone (Whitty &Buchanan, 2012)The National Fraud Authority (2012) estimatesthat fraud costs in the UK equate to over 78billion a year, with 3.5 billion lost to massmarketing fraud. New scams continue toemerge. This report focuses on a less wellknown scam, the ‘Online Dating Romance Scam’,which is an Advanced Fee Fraud, typicallyconducted by international criminal groups viaonline dating sites and social networking sites.The online dating romance scam emergedaround 2007 and has its roots in paper-mailbased fraud (Whitty & Buchanan, 2012).Between 1/4/10 and 1/4/11, Action Fraud, inthe UK, identified 592 victims of this crime inthe UK. Of these victims 203 individuals lostover 5,000. Action Fraud believes this crime isunder-reported and that there are actuallymany more victims (reporting the crimetypically involves contacting local police andmaking a statement).Whitty and Buchanan (2012) estimated from anationally representative survey that almost230,000 people may have been conned byromance fraudsters in Great Britain alone.Financial losses of victims known to SOCA (TheSerious Crime Agency) have ranged between 50- 800,000(SOCAofficers,personalcommunication, 2011).Action Fraud believe that the number of victimsare rising. This seems plausible given thatonline dating has become a very popular andalmost normative activity in Western society.Dutton and Helsper report that 23% ofInternet users in the UK had met someoneonline who they did not know before.Dutton, Helsper, Whitty, Buckwalter and Leefound that 6% of married UK couples whouse the Internet had met their partner online.Unlike other victims of mass-marketingfraud, we found that victims of the romancescam receive a ‘double hit’ from this crime: theloss of money as well as the loss of arelationship.We acknowledge that the romance scam stillcurrently exists as a postal mail scam (e.g.,ads placed in adult magazines with stolenphotographs of models which victimsrespond to, and unbeknown to them, build afictitious relationship with the criminal). Thisreport, however, focuses on research findingsfrom studies that focused on the onlinedating romance scam that originated ononline dating romance sites.Anatomy of the scamThe qualitative studies carried out for thisproject helped outline the anatomy of thescam (Whitty, 2012a).The online dating scam involves both identityfraud and mass marketing fraud. In thisscam, criminals pretend to initiate arelationship through online dating or socialnetworking sites with the intention todefraud their victims of large sums of money.Scammers create profiles with stolenphotographs (e.g., attractive models, armyofficers). At a very early stage the scammerdeclares their love for the victim and requeststhat their relationship move from the datingsite to Instant Messenger and email, statingthey want an exclusive relationship with thevictim. Communication is frequent andintense, over periods of weeks, months oreven years. Phone calls might also be made,5

1In the past the criminal’swriting was quite poor – this isno longer the case. The crimeoriginated in West Africancountries (Nigeria and Ghana);however, it is now believedthat criminals are scatteredaround the globe.but are typically less frequent (these daysvoices can be disguised, for example disguisingone’s accent or gender, via the use of a phoneapp).Often the scammer asks for gifts (e.g., perfume,mobile phone, laptop) as a testing-the-waterstrategy. Sometimes the criminal will send thevictim gifts to persuade them that therelationship is genuine.Following receipt or delivery of such gifts thescammer will make requests for small amountsof money (e.g., airplane ticket, money needed topay for diplomatic seals). If the victim complieswith these small requests then the scammeroften rapidly raises the stakes, pretending somecrisis has occurred which requires larger sumsof money (e.g., money to move the criminal’sbags, business crises, medical crisis).Sometimes this involves other characters beingbrought into the narrative. For example, a‘diplomat’ or ‘customs official’ might contactthe victim, asking for money so that bags beingsent to them can be released from storage. A‘doctor’ might contact the victim telling themtheir loved one is in hospital.The scam is made to appear more real becauseof the amount of detail the criminal provides.For example, the criminal often adds newsstories or contextualises their life with currentaffairs (e.g., if pretending to be an Americansoldier in Iraq he will relate the latest newsstories from Iraq; their business might berelated to the London Olympics). Fakedocuments are created to make the requestsappear more genuine (e.g., boarding cards,information about the ‘fake’ business).The narrative of the story varies dependingon whether a female or male victim is thetarget of the story. Male fictitious charactersoften start off wealthy in high status positions(e.g., army general, business owner, mangerof a big company). They might have lost theirwife in a tragic accident and are sometime leftwith a child to care for. Female characters areoften young and vulnerable. They have a job,but not typically of high status (e.g., a nurseor a teacher).In some cases the victim might be persuadedto visit an African country where they riskbeing kidnapped. In some cases the victimsthemselves become involved in illegalactivities (sometimes knowingly), such asmoney laundering or assisting in acquiringvisas.Towards the end of the scam, someindividuals are asked to take off their clothesand perform sexual acts in front of thewebcam. The recordings might be used at alater date to blackmail the victims. The fraudends only when the victim learns they havebeen scammed and ceases to give money.Second wave of the scamIt is often the case that victims experience asecond wave of the scam (even when thesuspect is detained – this is because of theorganised nature of the crime).The second wave occurs after the victimbecomes aware that the relationship was ascam and the criminal becomes aware thatthe victim learnt they have been defrauded.In this stage of the scam criminals find newways to defraud the victims.6

2Examples include: The criminal pretends to be the policestating that they have caught thecriminal and for a fee they will returnthe money.The criminal might contact the victimand confess they had been scammingthem, however, during that time theyhad fallen in love with the victim. Theythen proceed to request more moneyfrom the victim.The criminal contacts the victim andpretends to be a bank manager statingthat the reason why their loved did notmeet them at the airport was becausethey died – they then ask for money forfuneral expenses.PROJECT’S AIMS:1. Identify psychological characteristicsof individuals which raise their risk ofbecoming victims.2. Examine the persuasive techniquesemployed to scam victims of theonline dating romance scam.3. Examinethepsychologicalconsequences of being a victim of theonline dating romance scam.The studies reported here took placebetween December 2010-November 2011.The project was led by Professor MonicaWhitty at The University of Leicester. Thereport summarises each of the studiesconducted for this project and providesrecommendations for: law enforcementagencies, online dating companies, healthprofessionals and policy makers.7

Study 1:Typology ofvictims of theonline romancescamThis study aimed to devise a typology of thepsychological characteristics for the types ofindividuals who are more likely to be scammedby the online romance s that may put people at risk ofvictimization of individual mass-marketingfraud. Even less is know about victims of theromance scam. Hypotheses were drawn upconsidering the literature on scams and theliterature on romantic relationships.Loneliness: is one of the factors that motivatepeople to date online, and participants havereported that online relationships reduce theirloneliness (Lawson & Leck, 2006). Thus morelonely individuals might be more stronglymotivated to form online relationships, and alsomore likely to persist with and nurture the‘relationships’ they have been tricked into.Personality characteristics: Trust has beenfound to be associated positively withAgreeableness (more agreeable people weremore trusting) and Extraversion (moreextraverted people were more trusting), andnegatively with Neuroticism (more neurotic,less emotionally stable people were lesstrusting) (Evans & Revelle, 2008).Romantic beliefs: Sprecher and Metts (1989)found that high scorers on the RomanticBeliefs Scale tend to love and like theirpartner more, experience more passionatelove and reported a lower number of datesprior to falling in love. Those who score highon the Romantic Beliefs Scale typicallybelieve in the notion of romantic destiny, theidea that two people are meant to be together.Sensation seekers: look for varied, new,complex and intense sensations andexperiences and are willing to take physical,social, legal and financial risks for the sake ofsuch experiences. High sensation seekerstend to gauge risk as lower than lowsensation seekers and tend to feel lessanxious in risky situations (Zuckerman,1994).The following hypotheses were devisedfor the study:H1: Victims of the romance scam are likelyto score high on measures of lonelinesscompared with others using online datingsitesH2: Victims of the romance scam will bemore extraverted than those online daterswho do not fall victim.H3: Victims of the romance scam will bemore agreeable than those online daterswho do not fall victims.H4: Victims of the romance scam will beless neurotic than those online daters whodo not fall victim.H5: Victims of the romance scam will scorehigher on Romantic Beliefs compared withothers using online dating sites.H6: Victims of the romance scam will scorehigher in Sensation Seeking compared withothers using online dating sites.8

Each participant was asked to fill out demographic data (e.g., age, sex, educational level) and thefollowing battery of questionnaires: UCLA Loneliness Scale (Russell, 1996), a Five Factorpersonality inventory (Buchanan, Johnson & Goldberg, 2005), The Romantic Beliefs Scale(Sprecher & Metts, 1989), and the Brief Sensation Seeking Scale (Hoyle, Stephenson, Palmgreen,Lorch & Donohew, 2002).Participants were recruited via two places: an online dating site, and a romance scam victimsupport site. Given the possibility that participants from each sample could differ we decided totreat these as two studies. We finally decided to create a combined data set of only participantswho had used on online dating site and had been conned by scammers.Study1a: Online dating siteOf those who had lost money, most had lostbetween 1,001 and 10,000.In this study a final set of 796 participants wererecruited from a large online dating site. Themajority of participants who consideredthemselves victims had not lost money. Giventhe small numbers of victims who had lostmoney, those who had been told by others theywere scam victims, those who felt they werevictims but had not lost money and those whohad lost money, were collapsed together andcategorised as victims to compare with nonvictims. There was no significantbetween the groups for age.difference Men had a higher probability of beingvictims than women. The likelihood of being a victim did notdiffer for gay and heterosexual men. Only one of the hypotheses wassupported. Individuals higher on RomanticBeliefs were more likely to be victims ofthe scam. Specifically, people with ahigher tendency towards Idealisation ofromantic partners (one of the scale’s fourcomponents) were more at risk.Study 1b: Victim support siteOf those who had lost money, most hadlost between 1,001 and 10,000.In this study a final set of 397 participantswere recruited from a public online victimsupport site. Three categories of individualswere examined: non-victims, victims fooledby scammers who had not lost money, andvictims who had lost money.Non-victims vs Victims (lost money andthose who did not): Initially victims werecollapsedtogethertoconsiderourhypotheses. Again only one hypothesis wassupported. Individuals higher on romanticbeliefs were more likely to be victims of thescam. Participants with a higher tendencytowards idealisation of romantic partnerswere more at risk of being scammed. On average, non-victims (M 48.05;SD 12.13) were significantly youngerthan both victims losing money(M 53.06, SD 9.03) and victims whohad not lost money (M 52.38, SD 9.68). There was no significant differencebetween men and women in likelihoodof being a victim.9

Financial and non-financial victims: In Study1b, further analyses were then performed tocompare those victims who had not lost moneywith those who had. This was because all theseindividuals had initially been tricked byscammers, but only some had gone on to followthe scam to its conclusion. What sets thesegroups apart?Those who scored higher on Romantic Beliefswere more likely to be financial victimscompared to non-financial victims. In this caseit was the overall Romantic Beliefs score, notjust its Idealisation component, that wasimportant when comparing financial and nonfinancial victims.Study1c: Combined AnalysisA final set of analyses investigated theoutcomes of being scammed. Data from scamvictims in both Studies 1 and 2 were combined.Only participants who had used an onlinedating site and had been conned by scammerswere included in the analyses.Figure 1. Reported emotional effect on victimswho had not lost money across both samples(Not at all to Very distressed over a long period)Correlates of emotional distress in the nonfinancial victims were explored to examinefactors that might be associated with highdistress levels in this group.Links were found between emotional distressand: Loneliness, with more lonely peoplereporting stronger emotional effects; Neuroticism, with those who were lessemotionally stable reporting strongereffects; Openness to experience, with thosewho think more conventionally, areless imaginative and less culturallyaware being affected more; and Sex, with women more affected.Emotional distressVictims reported emotional distress on a 7point scale anchored at ‘Not at all’ (1) and ‘Verydistressed over a long period’ (7). Victims who had lost money (M 5.72;SD 1.46) did report significantly moredistress than those who had not(M 3.55, SD 1.92). There was a significant correlationbetween financial loss and emotionalimpact. Women lost more money than men.However, some non-financial victimswere also severely affected. Figure 1suggests that some non-financialvictims reported high levels ofemotional effects. Women were moreaffected than men. Neurotic men were more likely toreportdistresscomparedwithemotionally stable men.emotionally10

Risk FactorsStudy 2:Analysis ofvictims’accounts placedon internetThis study examined a) the types ofcharacteristics that put people at risk ofvictimisation; b) the persuasive techniquesemployed by the scammer; and c) thepsychological impact of this crime. The resultsfrom this study informed the development ofthe questions and the types of analysisemployed in Study 1. For example, it was foundthat people who are drawn into the scam but donot lose money identified themselves as victims(Whitty, McCausland & Kennedy, 2012).For this study 200 victims’ accounts on a publicInternet social support group were randomlydownloaded, with the permission of themoderator of the site. Posts were collected from50 men and women who stated they werefinancial victims and 50 men and women whostated they were non-financial victims.Given the newness of this crime and thescarcity of research available on the psychologyof online scams or even scams in general, it wasdecided that grounded theory should beemployed to analyse the data.Loneliness: 5% of victims wrote that theywere lonely prior to the scam. A male victimwrote:I was on my own, I started getting lonely,sad, restless, and sometimes depressed.Widowed: 6% of the victims describedthemselves as widowed.Trusting and naïve: 5% believed the reasonthey were conned was because they were tootrusting and naïve.History of abusive relationships: 7% ofvictimsstatedtheyhadpreviouslyexperienced an abusive relationship. Afemale victim wrote:I was married for 29 years to a veryabusive man.Falling in love quickly: 16% wrote they fellin love with the criminal within the first fewweeks. The following male victim wrote:She said she loved me and asked me tomarry her, so we were talking about along-term commitment relationship in thefirst few weeks.Research has found that intense love is notcommon at the beginning of a relationship,and instead more ludic styles are evident(Hammock & Richardson, 2011). Given theintense feelings some victims were feelingearly on, it is theorised that many of thevictims were highly motivated to fall in love,potentially leaving them vulnerable to bescammed.11

Persuasive TechniquesThe profile: The majority of posts discussed the criminal’s profile, whichwas the first factor that drew them into the scam. 29% described the profile as physically attractive. Fake male profile: often described as someone who was widowed,with a child, in a professional job or a businessman. Fake female profile: often described as someone extremely attractive(looking like a model), a student or someone in a low-paying job (e.g.,nurse, teacher).The following basic descriptions tap into the typical characteristics that menand women seek in a partner and would therefore seem like a sensiblestrategy for the scammer to employ. Researchers have found that womenlook for a partner with high socio-economic status and men look for apartner who is physically attractive (Kendrick, Sadalla, Growth & Trost,1990).12

Figure 2. Progression of CommunicationDeveloping trust: The majority of posts sketched how the relationship movedfrom the online dating site through the various modes of communication (see Fig2). Most victims discussed the criminal’s push to move the relationship off thesite quickly and how the scammer told them they took their profile off the siteimmediately as a demonstration of their commitment.Victims wrote that the scammers emailed them love poetry and InstantMessenger was used to communicate daily.These results are similar to previous research that has identified these incrementsof trust in the development of online relationships (Whitty & Gavin, 2001).Hyperpersonal relationships: This study found that through the use of ICTs,scammers were able to create hyperpersonal relationships (very intenserelationships) with their victims.Grooming process: Similar to victims of childhood sexual abuse, these victimswere groomed by the criminal.13

The Sting: Prior to requests for money the criminal, in some cases, appears to‘test the waters’ by asking the victim for a gift. Following this strategy a crisisoccurs (e.g., car accident on the way to the airport, major problems with thebusiness, being injured in war). It is at this point that large amounts of money arerequested.Maintenance of the Scam: In some cases the scam continued after the crisisthrough the use of new characters (typically authority figures, such as lawyers,diplomats and the police) and new excuses for money. (People are more likely tocomply from requests from authority figures, Cialdini, 1984).Trajectory of the scam: Scams involved three different types of trajectories (seeFig 3). The foot-in-the door technique (asks for small requests of money andwhen the victim complies they increase these requests) was used by somescammers, others went straight to the crisis, whilst others used the door-in-theface technique (as for large amounts of money and when the victim does notcomply they reduce the amount requested).Figure 3. Romance Scam trajectoriesTheories on persuasionExisting theories on persuasion can, in part, explain the success of these scams.But they are not enough (see SPT Model).Cialdini’s (1984). 6 basic tendencies of generating a positive response:reciprocity, commitment, consistency, social proof, author, liking and scarcity.Norm activation: Norm to help others or be a good citizen, for example, help sickchild, loved one in a car accident (Lea, Fischer & Evans, 2009).Elaboration likelihood model: which is used to explain attention to peripheraland central cues in a message (Petty & Cacioppo, 1986).14

Psychological ImpactScammersPersuasiveTechniquesModelVictims described experiencing a range ofnegative emotions including: Depression Guilt Shame Embarrassment Anger FearOther psychological affects included:This study found that previous theoriesdeveloped by social psychologists onpersuasion were not adequate enough toexplain this scam. A new model was developed,drawing from previous theories. This wasnamed the ‘Scammers Persuasive TechniquesModel’ (SPT model) and is summarised below(please see paper for full details):1. The victim is motivated to find love (asStudy 1 found they had a highertendency compared with other onlinedaters to seek out an ‘ideal’ partner). Feeling suicidalsuicide)(some Extreme distress Emotionally violated Loss of trust in others Fear Feeling stupid Denialattempting2. Grooming process: used to primeindividuals. This elicits a strong visceralresponseandahyperpersonalrelationship is developed (through theuse of ICTs). Victim works hard toreduce cognitive dissonance.3. Crisis: The victim is motivated to resumepositive feelings. Again works hard toreduce cognitive dissonance.4. Scam gradually comes to an end whenthe victim focuses less on rewardingaspects of the message and visceral cuesand more on external cognitive cues(provided by law enforcement and lovedones).15

Risk FactorsStudy 3:Interviews withvictimsParticipants went into detail about theirpsychological state prior to the scam.Neutral state: most described themselves in afairly neutral state prior to the scam.Happy: some described themselves as veryhappy prior to the scam and excited aboutfinding a new partner.Lonely: Some described themselves as verylonely prior to the scam. This female victimstated:This study examined a) the types ofcharacteristics that put people at risk ofvictimisation; b) the persuasive techniquesemployed by the scammer; and c) thepsychological impact of this crime (Whitty,2012b, Whitty, & Buchanan, 2012).A semi-structured interview was developed forthis study. Interviews took 3-5 hours toconduct. The study employed InterpretativePhenomenological Analysis (IPA) given itsemphasis on ‘lived experience’.In total 20 participants were interviewed: 13 heterosexual women – financial victims 1 heterosexual woman – non-financial victim2 heterosexual men – financial victim1 homosexual man – financial victim 2 heterosexual men – non-financial victims1 homosexual man – non-financial victimI was vulnerable. I’d been lonely for Ihadn’t had a boyfriend, a serious boyfriendsince X, and he wasn’t very serious.Probably about eleven years [since aserious relationship].Unhappy and insecure: Others stated theyfelt unhappy, depressed, anxious andinsecure.I: So what would you say your psychologicalstate was prior to him interacting with you?V: Very insecure.I: Insecure?V: Not happy.I: Not happy at all. And why was that?V: Erm. Lack of family around me .Mental health problems: Some of the menhad suffered from mental health problems alltheir lives, including social phobia anddepression.Abusive relationships: The majority of thewomen had experienced a highly abusiverelationship (verbal and/or physical). Thiswas usually their first romantic relationship.16

Scammers Persuasive Techniques Model:Further support was found for the modeldeveloped in Study 2.At first I waschasing therelationship, butin the end of waschasing a pot ofgold.Persuasive TechniquesSimilar findings were found here that we foundin Study 2.The Profile: Again the criminal’s uals typically find attractive in another.For the men (including gay men), nakedphotographs were later sent to the victims.Authority Figures: Fictitious authorityfigures such as diplomats, lawyers, doctorsand law enforcement were again used topersuade the victimRelationshipsdevelopedwithothercharacters: In addition to the love formedwith the fictitious lover some victimsreported developing close friendships withother characters in the narrative (even thoughthese too were fake and were probably withthe same person).Motivations changed – from love to gold: Insome cases the victim altered theirmotivations to be married to the fictitiouslover and instead were driven to obtain thebundles of money and gold promised (similarto the traditional Nigerian email scam).Trajectories: The same trajectories wereidentified in this study.Trust: was again developed through the use ofICTs.Hyperpersonal relationships: Again there wasclear evidence of hyperpersonal relationships.The victims often stated that they felt closer tothe fictitious relationship than any otherprevious relationship.Unconditional positive regard: This studyrevealed that, akin to Rogerian therapy, thescammers used unconditional positive regardto draw the victims close to them. Victims feltthey were not judged and were therefore able toself-disclose everything about themselves to thevictim.17

Some describedthe feeling ofbeing ‘mentallyraped’.V: And this is another reason why I can’ttell my family. I have nothing to give themlater on. Alright, they’re not entitled toit I: Do you really feel that you let themdown?V: Mmm. They will be angry at me.I: Why do you feel that?V: They’re my children. They’ve lost theirinheritance.I: So you’re not telling your family?V: (crying)Individuals who blame themselves for atraumatic event, such as rape or abuse areless likely to cope with trauma (Arat, 1992).This research found that victims were morelikely to blame themselves and that, in themain, loved ones did not help change thisattribution.Psychological impactEmotional/psychological state after the scam:All participants were affected negatively by thescam. They suffered a range of emotions andaffects, including: shame, embarrassment,shock, anger, worry, stress, fear, depression,suicidal and post-traumatic stress disorder.Some described the feeling of being mentallyr

known scam, the ‘Online Dating Romance Scam’, which is an Advanced Fee Fraud, typically conducted by international criminal groups via online dating sites and social networking sites. The online dating romance