They meet at an online dating site. He tells her he’s in the military, widowed with one teenage daughter, and a practicing Christian. He’s lonely being stuck on peacekeeping duty in the middle of nowhere but will finish his tour in 9 months and can’t wait for them to meet. They have so many common interests and values; she loves that he sends her his favorite Bible verses each week. 

A nonbeliever for much of her life, she had found the Lord three years ago after attending Alcoholics Anonymous with a friend from college; at the time, both of them were unhappy, drinking too much, and tired of being hungover. Her faith had given her comfort and strength but had contributed to the breakup of a long-term relationship with a man who wanted his woman to keep partying and stop praying. She was sober, stable, and ready for a serious relationship. 

Within a few weeks, he suggests they start communicating through personal email – easier to navigate, he says – and mentions that he plans to delete his dating profile because, after being lonely for so long after his wife died of breast cancer, he’s finally found his “second chance.” 

A year later, the romance is over, the “soldier” she loved turned out to be a scam, and she is broken-hearted and broke. Our victim has joined the ranks of over 18.000 American citizens who were victims of romance fraud in 2018 and who lost more than $362 million.

The Dance of Deceptive Devotion

It all starts when a con artist tricks a victim into a trusting relationship, then uses them to get money, goods, or sensitive financial information. I guess I should say victims as a romance scammer will typically have 10 to 15 victims on the hook at any given time. As a start, she or he will create numerous fake personas to bait lonely men and women into online relationships. Sometimes s/he will study a target specifically to create a profile that will be most appealing; sometimes s/he will trawl special groups (for new divorcees, a bereavement support group, single parent forum) whose users might be particularly lonely or vulnerable. 

There is always a “good’ reason why the scammer can’t meet the victim in person – s/he is a U.S. citizen living abroad or deployed overseas, etc. But, of course, this situation is only temporary. In spite of the lack of physical intimacy, a scammer will typically express strong emotions (perhaps even love) in a relatively short time. She or he may spend weeks or months developing on dating sites using photos of actual people, sending gifts such as flowers or chocolates, and asking for small sums of money for alleged minor emergencies to test his influence. 

At some point, the victim is going to be asked for money or information – and the request is going to be urgent and specific. Typically, this is attributed to some manufactured financial emergency; a sick relative needs help, the soldier needs money for an airplane ticket, the soon-to-be-returning home business man needs help transporting goods out of the country. If the target pays up, the scammer repeats the process (in various shapes and sizes) until it no longer works. When the victim wises up or runs out of money, the scammer disappears.   

What Makes us Vulnerable? 

There is no certain “kind of person” who gets duped by a devious con artist. But there does appear to be certain personality traits that tilt the balance in favor of falling for deception in love. For instance, some research suggests that those of us who tend to have a romantic or idealistic view of love (for example, believing in destiny, fate or soulmates) may be more susceptible to love fraud. Time and again, according to the FBI, romance scammers prey on these views to reel in a vulnerable victim. In addition, those of us who tend to be spontaneous or impulsive may be more likely to comply with urgent requests to send money in an unexpected crisis.    

Contrary to the popular belief that “stupid” people fall for scams, people who are more educated are also more vulnerable to becoming romance scam victims. In fact, overconfidence – not unintelligence – may lead us down a scammer’s primrose path specifically because we think we can’t be scammed.   

There are also certain characteristics that may make it harder for some romance con victims to once they are sucked in. We’ve all experienced the difficulty and pain of extricating ourselves from a relationship we’ve invested in; this is especially true for individuals who tend to go “all in” on everything. So, those of us with addictive or obsessive qualities may find it especially hard to pull away from the scam once we are pulled into the story. 

Let’s not ignore the situational factors, though. As with domestic violence, some relationship scammers try to isolate their victims from loved ones and push them to focus their time and resources on the pretend relationship as well.   

Anyone Can Be Scammed

Frank Abagnale Jr. insists that anyone can be scammed and he should know. A former con man, check forger and imposter, he spent some time in prison for impersonating a doctor, an airline pilot, a doctor, and a lawyer before going to work for the federal government as a financial fraud consultant. He’s known two former FBI directors who have been scammed. The editor-in-chief of Time magazine for 35 years has acknowledged that he fell for one. No one is safe.

Not all of us would fall for the same scam. We may be more or less vulnerable to a certain scam; being happily married and less inclined to romantic idealism, romance is not my Achilles heel. Fear, on the other hand, is. I once got a threatening phone call stating my social security card has been used in illegal activity and there was a warrant out for my arrest and I had to call back immediately to take care of it. I went into a panic until I had time to stop and think and realize that the Social Security Administration would never make such a phone call and, if someone was using my SSN falsely, I would be a victim, not the perpetrator.      

Better Safe Than Sorry

If you’ve ever watched the TV show Catfish, you know there are ways to quickly check the truth of an online profile; for example, by doing a reverse image search or using a tool such as socialcatfish.com. 

I get a lot more questions, though, from friends and family members of the victim asking how they can force their loved one to see the light. So often, they get stuck on what they perceive are the obvious red flags – the quick professions of love, the avoidance of video chat or face-to-face meetings, the sob stories. What we can fail to see is the emotional investment in the relationship and how devastating it might be for them to face the truth. As tempting as it might be, shaming or blaming never got anyone out of a bad relationship.      

But there are some ways we can help: Encourage him or her to visit websites that provide objective information about relationship scams. All victims of Internet love scams develop suspicions at some point, but may not immediately act on them because they would have to let go of the bond that was formed. As the relationship progresses, and s/he gets more suspicious, these will be harder to ignore.

When the relationship does end, show compassion. Celebrities, scientists, doctors, lawyers, rich people, and everyday folks have all been duped by scams. S/he will be embarrassed enough without an “I told you so.” Give them a hug and help them find real love.

For Further Insight:

BEATING THE ONLINE DATING SCAMS AT THEIR OWN GAME

THE LATEST NEWS ON ROMANCE SCAMS