The techniques used by fraudsters in online romance scams are similar to those found in domestic violence cases, according to our research published in the British Journal of Criminology last month.
The finding may help to tackle the problem with more than A$4.5 million lost by Australians caught in romance and dating scams in the first two months of this year alone.
According to the latest figures from the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s ScamWatch, that’s up on the same period last year.
The majority of the money lost was from reports of fraudsters using online services including social media, email and the internet.
Despite the growing problem there is little social science research exploring romance fraud. So far, most of it has focused on the grooming techniques offenders use to lure victims into simulated relationships.
But this is only part of the story. How is it that offenders convince victims to send money?
In our latest research, we found the non-violent techniques the romance fraudsters use are similar to those encountered in domestic violence.
The victims’ stories
As part of a larger previous study, we interviewed 21 victims of romance fraud, each whom thought they had met someone special but each were ultimately defrauded of at least A$10,000. Their stories are devastating.
Listening to victims describe their interactions with fraudsters, we noticed some similarities between romance fraud and the psychological abuse used by domestic violence offenders.
Psychological abuse has long been recognised as a central part of domestic violence, along with physical and sexual violence. Despite recent attention to coercive control, we were surprised to learn how little research has been conducted on psychological abuse in the context of domestic violence.
Accordingly, we used a classification of psychologically abusive tactics constructed by psychologists in the 1990s to see if the nine major categories of abuse they identified could be applied to romance fraud.
Although our interviews came from a larger study that didn’t ask directly about psychological abuse, 16 of the victims in our sample (12 women and four men) described eight of the nine types of psychological abuse. We discuss four examples here.
Isolation occurs when offenders interrupt the support networks of their victims. Romance fraud offenders were quick to move communication with victims off the dating and social media platforms and onto private email or messaging.
They spun this in a positive way, about becoming “exclusive” and “serious”.
But moving off community sites also circumvents safety mechanisms such as platforms’ prohibition of requests for money. Offenders also encouraged keeping the relationship secret.
Interview 25: She (offender) very quickly asked to move away from the site to a personal email, which looking back at what I know now, I would never do again.
Interview 15: And now I think the secrecy made it easier for him (offender) … because I was saying my kids would kill me if they knew what I was doing, and he said well you are a grown woman you don’t have to do what your kids say.
Monopolisation refers to offender efforts to consume the attention of their victims throughout the day.
Interview 12: Sometimes if I am not on the computer and I am doing other stuff, he will ask me, oh were you on Facebook? He appeared on my Facebook, he also got all my details of my Facebook. And also when I am not online sometimes he could see the little light lit up to see if I am in there, so he would ask me, you know, what are you doing online?
Degradation is behaviour that makes others feel less worthy. This includes verbal abuse such as name-calling, insults, and questioning the competency of victims.
Interview 3: He started to get quite nasty, and I thought this isn’t love. And then when I reported it, he was so, so angry…
(later in the interview) He was just abusive; it was like he was a little child and he couldn’t get the candy. Tantrums were thrown.
Interview 11: He was very pushy and even abused me on the phone a few times, very upsetting, had me terribly upset. He just kept on until I had nothing left (money) to send him.
Emotional or interpersonal withdrawal
While the above techniques are active, psychological abuse also involves passive tactics. Romance fraud offenders periodically cut off communication. This resulted in victims becoming anxious about the status of their relationship or the well-being of the offender.
Interview 6: It was just emails to start with and then she (offender) disappeared for two weeks and I did not know what was going on … then (she) came back two weeks later. So I did not know what was going on, I thought she might have been abducted or something.
Interview 24: Sometimes I wouldn’t hear from him (offender) for a week or so, then he’d be back online again. I could just never ever see him, ‘cause I used to keep questioning the trust thing. That’s when he used to throw out, ‘Don’t you trust me? We’ll have a life together’.
The impact of psychological abuse in romance fraud
These examples offer a glimpse into the dynamics of romance fraud. Despite the lack of a physical relationship, romance fraud offenders could manipulate victims by exploiting their hopes for a relationship and using psychological manipulation.
The fact that these tactics were persuasive enough to get victims to send large amounts of money to offenders illustrates how effective even non-physical forms of abuse can be.
Research on the non-physical abuse in the context of domestic violence has documented severe consequences for victims, including ongoing symptoms of trauma.
Romance fraud victims reported similar outcomes including adverse effects on their physical health, depression, breakdown of their supportive relationships, unemployment, homelessness and even contemplation of suicide.
Interview 5: I have come close to ending my life, honestly, I still feel that way.
Interview 16: I had one final conversation with her (a romance fraud perpetrator) and said 'I am going to commit suicide’, which is how I was feeling at the time.
Psychological abuse is an important part of the complex dynamics of interpersonal offending. Victims of romance fraud and domestic violence are often blamed for the crimes committed against them.
Research on psychological abuse can help us to better understand how victims become entrapped in abusive relationships over time and document the harms from non-physical forms of abuse.
This exploratory study shows how insights from research on non-physical abuse can inform romance fraud and domestic violence research in the future.
Although it has been relatively neglected by researchers compared to physical violence, we need to understand psychological manipulation in order to effectively prevent, intervene and respond to both romance fraud and domestic violence.
If you think you or someone you know has been scammed, please contact ScamWatch for help at www.scamwatch.gov.au or to report romance fraud please contact the Australian Cybercrime Online Reporting Network (ACORN).