Three Paper Thursday: Broken Hearts and Empty Wallets

This is a guest post by Cassandra Cross.

Romance fraud (also known as romance scams or sweetheart swindles) affects millions of individuals globally each year. In 2019, the Internet Crime Complaint Centre (IC3) (USA) had over US$475 million reported lost to romance fraud. Similarly, in Australia, victims reported losing over $AUD80 million and British citizens reported over £50 million lost in 2018. Given the known under-reporting of fraud overall, and online fraud more specifically, these figures are likely to only be a minority of actual losses incurred.

Romance fraud occurs when an offender uses the guise of a legitimate relationship to gain a financial advantage from their victim. It differs from a bad relationship, in that from the outset, the offender is using lies and deception to obtain monetary rewards from their partner. Romance fraud capitalises on the fact that a potential victim is looking to establish a relationship and exhibits an express desire to connect with someone. Offenders use this to initiate a connection and start to build strong levels of trust and rapport.

As with all fraud, victims experience a wide range of impacts in the aftermath of victimisation. While many believe these to be only financial, in reality, it extends to a decline in both physical and emotional wellbeing, relationship breakdown, unemployment, homelessness, and in extreme cases, suicide. In the case of romance fraud, there is the additional trauma associated with grieving both the loss of the relationship as well as any funds they have transferred. For many victims, the loss of the relationship can be harder to cope with than the monetary aspect, with victims experiencing large degrees of betrayal and violation at the hands of their offender.

Sadly, there is also a large amount of victim blaming that exists with both romance fraud and fraud in general. Fraud is unique in that victims actively participate in the offence, through the transfer of money, albeit under false pretences. As a result, they are seen to be culpable for what occurs and are often blamed for their own circumstances. The stereotype of fraud victims as greedy, gullible and naïve persists, and presents as a barrier to disclosure as well as inhibiting their ability to report the incident and access any support services.

Given the magnitude of losses and impacts on romance fraud victims, there is an emerging body of scholarship that seeks to better understand the ways in which offenders are able to successfully target victims, the ways in which they are able to perpetrate their offences, and the impacts of victimisation on the individuals themselves. The following three articles each explore different aspects of romance fraud, to gain a more holistic understanding of this crime type.

Williams, E., Beardmore, A. and Joinson, A. (2017) Individual differences in susceptibility to online influence: A theoretical review. Computers in Human Behaviour 72: 412-421.

One of the most pressing challenges with fraud victimisation is understanding why people become victims of fraud. It can be very difficult for non-victims or outsiders to understand how a person was deceived and persuaded to send money. This article provides a comprehensive and nuanced concept of susceptibility as it applies to fraud victimisation. While not exclusively focused on romance fraud, the article examines susceptibility to online frauds.

The article is based on a strong foundation that susceptibility to fraud is neither fixed nor static, but rather should be conceived in relation to a variety of individual and contextual factors. This is an important assertion, as it acknowledges that there is no “typical” fraud victim as such, and further recognises that different approaches may effectively target different individuals at various points in time.

Individual susceptibility explores the idea that there may be certain demographics, attitudes or other attributes that lead to fraud victimisation. Factors such as self-awareness, self-control, self-deception, trust, approach to risk, and expertise are considered, drawing from research not only as it relates to fraud, but also other disciplines where relevant. Contextual susceptibility details heuristics, emotions, culture, and organisation as key variables to explore with regards to effective fraudulent approaches.

With this as a foundation, the article proposes a model of individual susceptibility to influence, which covers the who (individual traits of the victim), when (current state of self-awareness, cognitive pressure or fatigue), where (the context of the approach (home or work), the communication platform used, and the impact of cultural values), and what (the mechanism used by offenders, such as techniques of authority and/or urgency) of victims and the corresponding fraudulent approach. This framework provides an important foundation to conduct further research into the ways in which individuals are susceptible to online deception. It asks several critical questions about the interaction of these factors in a bid to better understand how susceptibility operates in the context of fraud.

Overall, this article provides a dynamic approach to understanding how fraud occurs and the complexity of victimisation.

Cross, C., Dragiewicz, M. and Richards, K. (2018) Understanding Romance Fraud: Insights from Domestic Violence Research. British Journal of Criminology 58(6): 1303-1322.

In seeking to better understand the ways in which offenders gain compliance from victims, this article details my own work with colleagues that uses existing knowledge from the field of domestic violence and applies it to romance fraud. This article is based on interview data from a larger project examining online fraud victimisation in Australia. Of our full sample of 80 victims, 25 (31%) had experienced romance fraud, with 21 of these being direct victims.

The article uses nine categories of psychological abuse identified by Tolman and colleagues (1999). These categories include: economic abuse; creation of fear; isolation; monopolization; degradation; rigid sex role expectations/trivial requests; psychological destabilization; emotional or interpersonal withdrawal; and contingent expressions of love. The interview transcripts of the 21 romance fraud victims were analysed to determine the prevalence of these nine categories across the narratives of these victims.

The analysis established that eight of the nine categories of psychological abuse were evident in the accounts of romance fraud victims (rigid sex role expectations and trivial requests did not appear in the transcripts). This is significant given that this was not a focus of the original study, and that there were no interview questions which specifically asked about these techniques. Rather, the evidence to support the use of psychological abuse by offenders in romance fraud was given unprompted and formed part of the overall account of victimisation.

The value of applying these techniques to an understanding of romance fraud is twofold. First, it seeks to give a greater sense of legitimacy to romance fraud victimisation. There are strong negative stereotypes and a stigma associated with victimisation. In viewing victimisation through this more established lens, it gives credibility to the ways in which victims are manipulated and exploited by offenders. Second, it has the potential to better identify methods of intervention, disruption and support for romance fraud victims. There is a wealth of research in the domestic violence field which can be drawn upon to more effectively reduce the likelihood and impact of romance fraud.

Overall, this article offers a foundation on which to examine the presence of psychological abuse within the context of romance fraud in a more rigorous and deliberate manner.

Barnor, J., Boateng, R., Kolog, E. and Afful-Dadzie, A. (2020)Rationalizing Online Romance Fraud: In the Eyes of the Offender AMCIS 2020 Proceedings 21.

Research examining romance fraud is overwhelmingly based on victim perspectives of this offence. Notably, most studies seek to understand one or more aspects of the factors that contribute to why victims are susceptible; the techniques used by offenders to perpetrate their deception; and the various impacts of romance fraud victimisation in the aftermath of incidents.

However, it is equally important to understand romance fraud from an offender’s perspective. This article uses interviews with 10 self-identified romance fraud offenders in Ghana. It combines the motivation-opportunity-ability framework with the rationalisation dimension of the fraud triangle to gain insights into how these offenders understand their actions and the impacts of their offending.

In outlining their results, the authors detail the reasons why offenders partake in romance fraud. One factor stems from their individual need to provide for their families, and high levels of unemployment which restrict their ability to access legitimate job opportunities. There is a plethora of opportunities available to conduct these activities, and a strong belief in the inability of police to be able to catch them. In terms of abilities, offenders note the combination of social and technical skills needed to perpetrate romance fraud, and the allocation of these tasks to individuals as appropriate.

The ability of offenders to rationalise and/or justify their actions is clear. There is a belief that what they are doing is not criminal, and that online offending (as evident in romance fraud) is better than committing violent offences (such as robbery). There is also a belief that victims are greedy, gullible and unintelligent, and that victimisation is justified (particularly against Westerners) in terms of colonial transgressions of the past.

The results of these interviews are challenging to read, having interviewed so many victims whose lives have been devastated by romance fraud. However, it is critical to understand the cultural lens through which romance fraud is perpetrated and the assumptions that underpin both offender and victim behaviours. While it is important to note that romance fraud is a global phenomenon crossing all geographical boundaries, there is arguably a concentration of offenders in West Africa who focus their efforts on romance fraud. The social, economic, political and cultural context of these nations lays the foundations for offenders to engage in romance fraud as a means of making money. One cannot address the root causes of romance fraud without acknowledging this and seeking to address these wider societal issues.

Overall, this article provides important insights into the motivations and justifications of romance fraud offenders as well as some of the logistics involved in their offending behaviour.

Cassandra Cross

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