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SCARS™ Study: Online Romance Scams And Victimhood

A Major New Academic Study Into Romance Scams Has Just Been Published

A Study By: Tom Sorell and Monica Whitty, published 21 January 2019

Note: This is a serious attempt to comprehend the complete romance scam experience and is not intended to deliver simple answers. Studies such as this do help develop scam countermeasures, as well as programs to help assist victims in their recovery. English is UK English


Online romance scams defraud dating website users of large amounts of money and inflict serious psychological harm. Victims of these scams often blame themselves for their losses and are blamed by others. We consider whether victims actually do share responsibility with the scammer for their losses. Three sorts of cases are particularly relevant: (i) where there are relatively many abortive meetings and even more fruitless money transfers in a single scam; (ii) where someone is a repeat scam victim; and (iii) where the victim has been warned by authorities that they are currently a victim of a scam and pay anyway. We argue that responsibility sometimes is shared, but that losses can be out of proportion to imprudence. Scam victims sometimes violate epistemic norms, but in ways that are peculiar to romantic attachment. The paper combines the methods of qualitative psychological research on scam victims and analytic philosophy (Research for this paper was supported by Grant EP/N028112/1 from the UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council).

The online dating romance scam emerged around 2007 or 2008 and has its roots in paper-mail-based fraud (Whitty and Buchanan 2012). It is believed to be one of the most common and (for criminals) lucrative cyber-enabled scams (ACCC 2015; ONS 2016; Whitty and Buchanan 2012). Originally, men were as likely as women to be victims. Now female victims predominate. Although people targeted by the scam can come from any country, there have been notable recorded increases in numbers from the UK, Australia, Canada and the U.S. A. The FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center reported that that there were 14,546 US victims of romance or confidence scams in 2016, a rise of over 200 per cent from 5791 in 2014.1 Individuals’ losses can range between £50 and £240,000, although the harms have been found to be a ‘double hit’ of financial and psychological loss (Whitty and Buchanan 2016).

How does the scam work? Criminals start by creating deceptive profiles of themselves on internet dating sites, using a certain combination of text and stolen images to arouse interest. For example, profiles of retired military men living abroad are often employed to attract middle-aged women daters. The profiles lure people into making a romantic connection with a persona constructed by a scammer, whose goal is to obtain as much money as they can from online daters.

Scammers groom the people who take their bait. Whitty (2013) describes the typical stages of grooming. At first, the scammers’ goal is to make the target fall in love with the persona they have constructed. This is usually accomplished by directing numerous ardent text messages daily to the target, sometimes interspersed with romantic gifts. If that is successful, a second stage of interaction begins in which the scamming target is led to believe they are about to meet the person they have fallen in love with. Soon the scammer communicates news of various obstacles to meeting, each of which can supposedly be overcome by transfers of money.2 If the victim produces these transfers, a meeting becomes imminent again. At the last moment, however, it, too, falls though, often in circumstances that require the victim to come to the rescue of the scammer’s persona by means of yet more financial transfers. The scenario of the immine