Inside the mind of a romance fraudster
Fraudsters use many tactics to influence their victims so that they believe they’re in a relationship in order to take their money.
Dr Elisabeth Carter, Criminologist, and leading expert on the language of romance scams, explains how:
“Romance fraudsters use language to control and take advantage. They twist the way people make decisions in a similar way to grooming or domestic abuse. This is what makes it difficult for people to realise they’re being manipulated, even if it seems obvious to friends and family.”
Victims of romance scams are not simply sending money to strangers out of the blue. They’re making decisions that feel reasonable to them, which is why they don’t realise they’re being manipulated.
Three ways fraudsters use language to influence people into sending money
This is a real-life case of a romance scam. The names have been changed.
Mary joined a Facebook group for fans of a popular film, chatting with other members and leaving comments on their posts. Not long after she’d joined, Mary received a private message from another member of the group, called Bill. They chatted on Facebook for a while, until Bill asked Mary to move the conversation to WhatsApp, where their conversations became less about the film and more about their personal lives.
Bill and Mary were in contact daily, exchanging dozens of messages and the occasional phone call – although never any video calls. Bill sent Mary photos of himself in different places, some with his daughter.
After some time, the conversation turned to money
Bill told Mary his bank account had been blocked and he had no access to money for a short while. Bill sent Mary photos of bank statements showing £1 million was due to be paid and others showing large amounts of savings.
Mary agreed to help out by buying gift cards and sending small amounts of money. Then, she got a message from Bill saying his daughter had been taken ill with a blood transfusion and needed an urgent kidney transplant.
Bill sent photos showing his daughter lying in a hospital bed and Mary received a message from a person who said they were the doctor responsible for her care. Bill said he too was a doctor, but was currently in Syria, where he’d been deployed as part of his role in the US Army. Bill told Mary his daughter’s hospital bills needed to be paid and asked whether she could help, promising to pay her back as soon as he had the money, which would be soon.
Mary agreed to help and was told to send the money to a lady named Sheila, who worked in the administration department of a Turkish hospital. Bill told Mary this was because the hospital had a UK bank account and would be able to deal with the payments. Mary sent some money to Sheila, but then told Bill she couldn’t afford to send any more.
Mary started to get suspicious
Bill suggested Mary take out a loan. Mary was nervous about this and mentioned it to a family member – and it was at this point the scam became clear. She and Mary talked through what had happened and Mary realised that she had been the victim of a romance scam from the start.
Mary’s loss was £14,500 but by talking to her family about the relationship she saved herself from losing even more money.
Romance fraudsters can be charming and appear genuine. It’s not your fault if you become a victim of this crime. But there are things you can do to support your safety online. No matter how long you’ve been speaking to someone online or how much you think you trust them, they may not be who you think they are.
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“Victims’ actions are not a result of stupidity or greed” says Dr Carter. “They’re the result of fraudsters using grooming techniques designed to make actions feel right.”
Being a victim of a romance scam won’t just hurt financially. Realising that a relationship is not real can trigger many challenging emotions. Feelings of hurt, embarrassment and shame are common. There’s nothing to be ashamed or embarrassed about. Romance scams are more common than you’d think. There are organisations that can offer support.