That’s the last thing any of us would want to be called after we’d been scammed for hundreds of thousands of dollars.
At the beginning of February, Netflix released a crime documentary, “The Tinder Swindler,” that tells the stories of several women from Norway, Sweden and Finland who had been victims of a sophisticated romance scam.
The man who scammed them used a similar story each time. He posed as a very wealthy person with very powerful enemies, but within this dangerous, jet-setting life of his he found time to connect with matches on dating apps.
After months of conversation, weekend getaways and “maybe we should move in together”s, he would message his victims with news that he had been attacked by his enemies and was unable to access his money. He’d then ask for increasingly large sums of cash that would be repaid as soon as he got access to his funds.
Of course, there were no enemies, nor were there funds locked away. Once he got the payment from the victims? Poof, gone.
A few years ago, one victim went to the Norwegian press to tell her story. That reporting serves as the basis for the Netflix documentary. And as The Guardian’s Rebecca Nicholson notes in her review of the documentary, when the Swindler’s victims went public, they faced a considerable amount of scorn, shaming and name-calling from the public. That’s how “gold-digger” entered this story.
From 2016 to 2020, losses from romance scams in the U.S. increased fourfold. That’s as far as we know, anyway. That number could be higher. Like so many crimes in which a person’s intimacy is violated, the stigma associated with romance scams means crimes go unreported.
As a result, most people remain unaware of the true threat this kind of fraud poses.
Below, Featurespace Fraud and Financial Crime Expert, PJ Rohall, argues that it’s time for society to have honest, judgement-free conversations about romance scams, because they are rampant, and they are ruining the lives of innocent people.
And any of us could become victims if we remain unaware of the threat.
Why romance scams are so destructive
Romance scams can bleed a person financially and psychologically.
Think about it. If you put your trust in someone only to discover you’ve been lied to all that time — for weeks, months, sometimes years — you will feel betrayed. And, for many of us, ashamed.
All too often, these scams are presented as superficial or trivial, or at most a “you should have known better” type of mistake.
But how many of us could have known better had we been caught up in a scam like The Tinder Swindler’s? Who among us would shrug off a charming, interesting, fascinating person when they enter our lives, even if their story seemed a little too interesting to be true?
That’s not how people work, especially people who feel they might be falling for someone.
A well-timed “I love you” from a scammer can flood a victim’s brain with hormones and cause all of their defenses to drop, the group Society of Citizens Against Relationship Scams (SCARS) writes:
“This cocktail of chemicals in the brain short-circuits a lot of our natural intellectual defenses. You probably felt that yourself when you fell in love hard for the first time? But this is not love in the purest sense, this is masterful manipulation.”
Romance scammers play on our greatest vulnerabilities. The response that allows us to drop our guards and love another person is the same response that makes us vulnerable to the grooming and the psychological manipulation needed to pull off a romance scam.
Anyone seeking a romantic connection, whether wittingly or unwittingly, is susceptible to this scam.
That’s why each of us needs to be vigilant, understand the risks and have empathy for people who have been so betrayed.
How to start having these honest conversations
It’s always hard to talk about anything that carries a sense of shame or stigma. But talking is exactly how those stigmas fall away.
Here are three things each of us can do to steer conversations about romance scams away from any sense of judgement or shame:
- Get rid of any notions about loneliness. Feeling lonely is not a prerequisite for getting scammed. Fraudsters groom and manipulate all kinds of people. Do be aware, however, that the actual victimhood, the actual betrayal and theft, can make a person feel incredibly lonely.
- Shed light on how these scams play out. Every scam has its patterns, and romance scams are no different. As the U.S. Federal Trade Commission points out in its guidance, a romance scammer might pose as an offshore oil worker, a soldier or a doctor in an international organization. The scammer then will weave a story about how they need money for a plane ticket, or for a ransom or for a medical procedure. The more people can recognize the patterns of fraud, the less effective those scams will be.
- Resist fear-mongering. Well-meaning organizations will insist that people on dating apps shouldn’t share too much personal information and pump the brakes when sparks fly early. While responsible vigilance is indeed called for, there is a hidden message in there that says, “Well, maybe you should have taken things a little more slowly.” Let’s avoid any messages that blame the victim.
What role should financial institutions play?
Financial institutions are in the unique position of being able to help people through education and by safeguarding accounts.
On the education side, it’s a matter of helping customers understand the risk involved when they meet people through dating apps (or on Instagram, or while gaming). Tips for safer online interactions can be helpful, and AARP has a few of those, which include:
- Doing a Google Image search with a person’s photo to see whether it’s been used before by someone else.
- Copy/pasting flirtatious emails into a Google search to see whether it’s a script.
- Refraining from sending intimate photos that could be used in an extortion scam.
Often, guidance for avoiding romance scams includes a tip to never send someone money. But as noted above, a scammer’s manipulations will make the request for money seem reasonable. It’s the thing they’ve been building up to, after all. Victims at that stage in the relationship will find it incredibly hard to say “no” to that request.
That’s why financial institutions must also invest in technology that can anticipate and prevent all types of scams, romantic or otherwise.
Honest, empathic messaging backstopped with tools designed to outsmart financial criminals — this is how financial institutions can lead the fight against romance scams.