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Do You Love Me? Psychological Characteristics of Romance Scam Victims

An Academic Study by Monica T. Whitty, Ph.D.

Foreword By The Society of Citizens Against Romance Scams [SCARS]

For the purpose of enhancing victim understanding and victim assistance & support providers knowledge, we are presenting the study in its entirety without edits or comments.

While the results are the interpretation of the researcher and may differ from the practical experience of our organization over 27 years, we feel this is invaluable in expanding the understanding of the impacts on romance scam victims.

While some scam victims may feel like this reduces them to little more than lab rats, it is important to understand that such studies help us all better understand the impact that scams have on different individuals and helps us develop better support and recovery solutions for victims.

Footnotes: throughout the text, you will find numbers at the end of phrases and sentences, these refer to the numbered references at the bottom of the document.

Do You Love Me? Psychological Characteristics of Romance Scam Victims
An Academic Study by Monica T. Whitty, Ph.D.

Abstract

The online dating romance scam is an Advance Fee Fraud, typically conducted by international criminal groups via online dating sites and social networking sites. This type of mass-marketing fraud (MMF) is the most frequently reported type of MMF in most Western countries. This study examined the psychological characteristics of romance scam victims by comparing romance scam victims with those who had never been scammed by MMFs. Romance scam victims tend to be middle-aged, well-educated women. Moreover, they tend to be more impulsive (scoring high on urgency and sensation seeking), less kind, more trustworthy, and have an addictive disposition. It is argued here that these findings might be useful for those developing prevention programs and awareness campaigns.

Introduction

Mass-marketing fraud (MMF) is a type of fraud that exploits mass communication techniques (e.g., email, Instant Messenger, bulk mailing, social networking sites) to trick people out of money. One of the most well known of these is the 419 (Nigerian email scam), which existed in letter writing before the Internet. In the last 10 years we have witnessed an explosion of this crime on a global scale. In the United Kingdom in 2016, it was reported in the British Crime National survey that citizens are 10 times more likely to be robbed while at their computer by a criminal-based overseas than to fall victim of theft.1 Given the numbers of individuals scammed by MMF, there is an urgent need to understand in more detail the reasons why people are tricked and the kinds of people who are more vulnerable to becoming scammed.

The romance scam (also referred to as the online dating romance scam or the sweethearts scam) is of particular concern given the numbers of victims reported worldwide.1–6 The online dating romance scam is an Advance Fee Fraud, typically conducted by international criminal groups via online dating sites and social networking sites.6 Criminals pretend to initiate a relationship with the intention to defraud their victims of large sums of money. Scammers create fake profiles on dating sites and social networking sites with stolen photographs (e.g., attractive models, army officers) and a made-up identity. They develop an online relationship with the victim off the site, ‘‘grooming’’ the victim (developing a hyperpersonal relationship with the victim) until they feel that the victim is ready to part with their money.7,8 This scam has been found to cause a ‘‘double hit’’–a financial loss and the loss of a relationship. Whitty and Buchanan9 found that for some victims the loss of the relationship was more upsetting than their financial losses, with some victims describing their loss as the equivalent of experiencing a death of a loved one.

By studying MMF victimology we might be able to develop more effective methods to detect and prevent this type of crime. For example, we could learn more about who to target when conducting awareness campaigns or the most appropriate interventions according to personality type. This article reports empirical research examining the psychological characteristics of victims of romance scams. It is hoped that the findings will be applied in the crime prevention of romance scam and MMF in general.

Typology of Victims

There has been some speculation about the typology of fraud victims. Much of the work has focused on personal fraud, in general. For example, Titus and Gover10 believe that victims of fraud are more likely to be cooperative, greedy, gullible/uncritical, careless, susceptible to flattery, easily intimidated, risk takers, generous, hold respect for authority, and are good citizens. Fischer et al.11 found in their survey research that scam victims or near scam victims were more affected by the high values offered in scams and displayed a high degree of trust in the scammers. They also found some support for the notion that some kind of enduring personality trait might increase susceptibility to persuasion.

Similarly, a susceptibility to persuasion scale has been developed with the intention to predict likelihood of becoming scammed.12,13 This scale includes the following items: premeditation, consistency, sensation seeking, self-control, social influence, similarity, risk preferences, attitudes toward advertising, need for cognition, and uniqueness. The current work, therefore, suggests some merit in considering personal dispositions might predict likelihood of becoming scammed.

Romance Scam Typology

Some researchers have focused on specific types of MMFs. Lee and Soberon-Ferrer,14 for example, measured individuals’ vulnerability to consumer fraud and found that people with higher vulnerability scores tended to be older, poorer, less educated and single. Buchanan and Whitty15 found in their research on online dating romance scams that individuals with a higher tendency toward idealization of romantic partners were more likely to be scammed. Given the number of iterations of scams it may well be that some individuals are more susceptible to different types of fraud and so studying them separately might have some merit. This study builds upon the work on romance scam to investigate further the types of individuals who are more vulnerable to becoming financial victims of this crime.

Current Study

This study was interested in whether romance scam victims differ in personal characteristics compared with individuals who have not been scammed. Drawing from the previous literature on scamming compliance behavior and the research on behaviors related to certain personality dispositions, the below hypotheses were formulated for romance scam victims compared with nonvictims.

Age

There have been mixed findings on age differences and vulnerability to scams. Some suggest that older adults are more vulnerable to MMF,16,17 while others have found that older individuals are victimized to a similar extent to those in their midlife,18 those in their midlife are more likely to become victims compared to older and younger people.1,2 With regards to romance scams, i