How Do Individuals Justify and Rationalize their Criminal Behaviors in Online Romance Fraud?

An Academic Study Into Criminal Behavior In West Africa

Presented by SCARS

An Academic Study Into West African Criminality

We present this important study to give insights into the mindset of scammers/online criminals in Ghana and by extension the rest of West Africa. 

Understanding how scammers think and justify their actions from a criminology point of view is important in being able to both identify them, arrest them, and successfully convict them. That is why this study is so important to crime prevention professionals around the world.

It should be acknowledged that conducting this research inside of West Africa was not without risks to the study team and authors. We thank them for facing the dragon in his own lair!


How Do Individuals Justify and Rationalize their Criminal Behaviors in Online Romance Fraud?


  • Martin Offei
  • Francis K. Andoh-Baidoo, The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley
  • Emmanuel Wusuhon Yanibo Ayaburi, The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley
  • David Asamoah


  • Department of Computer Science, Koforidua Technical University, Koforidua, Ghana
  • Department of Information Systems, The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, Edinburg, TX, USA
  • Department of Supply Chain and Information Systems, Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, Kumasi, Ghana


Online romance fraud (ORF) is a growing concern with such serious negative consequences as financial loss or suicide to the victim. Majority of empirical studies on online romance fraud using attachment, deception, protection motivation and relation theories focus on the victim. While neutralization offers insights into how individuals justify their deviant behaviors, the results have not been consistent in different contexts. In the ORF context, offenders may not only rely on justifying techniques but also rationalize their actions by denying risk both to the victim and the offender. Thus, drawing from the neutralization and denial of risk theories, we develop a research model to explain how online romance offenders justify and rationalize their intended criminal activities. To confirm our theoretical model, we collected 320 responses from individuals at Internet Cafés alleged to be online romance fraud hotspots. Our results highlight the boundary conditions of neutralization techniques in the context of online romance fraud. The study shows that denial of risk, a rationalization mechanism, moderates the relationship between denial of victim, a justification technique, and intention to commit romance fraud. This insight advances the frontiers of neutralization theory. We offer both theoretical and managerial implications of the findings.

How do Individuals justify and rationalize their criminal behaviors in online romance fraud?

From the Study.


Rigorous academic studies of online romance fraud (ORF), especially those involving empirical evidence, are still evolving. Widely accepted theories or theoretical frameworks in the literature such as attachment theory, deception, protection motivation theory and relational theory have been used to investigate the online romance fraud phenomenon (Buchanan and Whitty 2014; Ho et al. 2017; Luu et al. 2017; Mosley et al. 2020). Much of the studies focus on the victims and their vulnerabilities. However, understanding why offenders commit such illegal acts without regard to the harm to the victims is evolving and unclear. Online romance fraud offenders use online dating and social networking sites to deceive and defraud their victims in a target nation, mostly Western countries. The offenders take advantage of the victims’ genuine quest for romantic relationships to deceive their victims through false pretense, impersonation, counterfeiting, forgery, and other fraudulent representation of facts (Ibrahim 2016). Online fraud has received attention from criminology, information systems, and other disciplines (Buchanan and Whitty 2014; Moore et al. 2009; Williams et al. 2017; Wong et al. 2012). One of the unique features of online romance fraud is that the victim is more driven by the quest for romantic relationship and not the financial reward (Buchanan and Whitty 2014). The romantic relationship distinguishes romance scam or romance fraud from any other fraud and for that matter, any other cybercrimes, and therefore demands special attention (Cross 2018). Illegal activities of deceit or extortion of individuals on the dating sites is aided by the ability of the perpetrators to justify their actions due to the way dating sites operate. A troubling aspect of the online romance fraud is that, most of the offenders reside in jurisdictions outside that of the victims. Most perpetrators are usually technically savvy and about college-aged.

In this study, we investigate how individuals employ neutralization techniques to justify online romance fraud prior to committing the crime (Sykes and Matza 1957). Neutralization theory, from criminology, has been employed to explain deviant behaviors in societies and organizations. In proposing the neutralization theory, Sykes and Matza (1957) suggest that, deviants do not generally oppose the law-abiding society but find ways to convince the society that their deviant behavior results from treatment and harm that they have suffered from their environment. They put across a sorry and apologetic disposition to gain sympathy and shield themselves from blame from the society. Sykes and Matza (1957) refer to these actions as neutralization techniques which are learned by deviants and used as the basis for legitimizing their crimes or victims. A neutralization technique is a temporary insulator that a criminal or an offender uses to absolve themselves from self-blame and from the blame of society in general (Sykes and Matza 1957).

Neutralization techniques as justifications are critical in lessening the effectiveness of social controls. Characteristics of the perpetrators where neutralization may explain delinquent behavior include: 1) feeling of shame or guilt 2) identification of appropriate and inappropriate target 3) avoiding harm to any individual within their community and 4) accepting at least partially dominant social order (Sykes and Matza 1957). It behooves academia and the society in general to understand why an abled college-age individual who might otherwise aspire to productive socially acceptable careers engage in such delinquent behavior as ORF. Our first research question: (i) how does neutralization influence the intention to commit online romance fraud?

This study acknowledges that neutralization techniques alone may not be enough to explain intention to commit crime, since other factors may be at play (Siponen et al. 2012). While neutralization is the basis for forming justifications prior to committing a crime, rationalization can be deployed to masquerade the main motivation after committing the crime.

Rationalization is aimed at making a case for why the actions make sense. In the context of online romance, victim, and offender establish a relationship in which the offender commits time, effort, and in some cases monetary gifts into maintaining the relationship. The victim equally invests same if not more. However, the offenders know ahead of committing the crime that online romance fraud is not only illegal but also has heavy negative consequences. Thus, offenders may rationalize their actions by denying the existence of risk through their confidence in evading law enforcement or that their specific crime is not as bad or harmful as other crimes. Therefore, we postulate that denial of risk perception may interact with the effect of neutralization on intention to commit crime. To address the need to understand the motivation of online romance offender, we focus on the effect of denial of risk and address our second research question: (2) how does denial of risk perception interact with the effect of neutralization on the intention to commit online romance fraud?

Drawing from the neutralization theory (Sykes and Matza 1957) and denial of risk theory (Peretti-Watel 2003), we develop a research model that explains how online romance scammers justify and rationalize their criminal activities.

To empirically test our model, we collected 320 responses from individuals at Internet Cafés alleged to be online romance fraud hotspots. The study results contribute to the cyber fraud literature by complementing the existing criminology theories used to understand deviant behaviors. While prior research has identified the positive effect of denial of responsibility, denial of injury, and denial of victim, a subset of the neutralization techniques, on intention to commit crime, this study finds that their positive effects vary depending on the offender level of denial of risk perception. Thus, this study contributes to building theory about ORF phenomenon and providing boundaries to the neutralization theory. For practical implication, our results show that it may be useful for administrators of online platforms to provide their members at the point of joining the platform information that contains such pointers as levels of over-confidence levels or empathy about of their potential partners. Such pointers illustrate the tendencies to justify or rationalize delinquent intentions. The rest of the paper is organized as follows. We present theoretical development and research model highlighting some of the prior relevant studies in the next section. We then discuss our research method in section 3, followed by section 4, which covers our results, findings, and implications.

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