Scam Trauma Syndrome [STS]

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ScamScam A Scam is a confidence trick - a crime -  is an attempt to defraud a person or group after first gaining their trust through deception. Scams or confidence tricks exploit victims using their credulity, naïveté, compassion, vanity, irresponsibility, or greed and exploiting that. Researchers have defined confidence tricks as "a distinctive species of fraudulent conduct ... intending to further voluntary exchanges that are not mutually beneficial", as they "benefit con operators ('con men' - criminals) at the expense of their victims (the 'marks')". A scam is a crime even if no money was lost. TraumaTrauma Emotional and psychological trauma is the result of extraordinarily stressful events that shatter your sense of security, making you feel helpless in a dangerous world. Psychological trauma can leave you struggling with upsetting emotions, memories, and anxiety that won’t go away. It can also leave you feeling numb, disconnected, and unable to trust other people. Traumatic experiences often involve a threat to life or safety or other emotional shocks, but any situation that leaves you feeling overwhelmed and isolated can result in trauma, even if it doesn’t involve physical harm. It’s not the objective circumstances that determine whether an event is traumatic, but your subjective emotional experience of the event. The more frightened and helpless you feel, the more likely you are to be traumatized. Trauma requires treatment, either through counseling or therapy or through trauma-oriented support programs, such as those offered by SCARS. SyndromeSyndrome It is a group of symptoms that can consistently occur together or a condition characterized by a set of associated symptoms. [STS]

The Apparent Psychological Factors Affecting Scam Victims

A Paper on the Psychology of ScamsPsychology Of Scams Psychology Of Scams is the study of the psychological or emotional effects of scams or financial fraud on victims of these crimes. It helps victims to better understand the impact of scams on them personally or on others. To find the SCARS articles on the Psychology of Scams, use the search option to enter the term and find them.

An Exploration of the Psychological Effects of a Romance Scam on its Victim

A Whitepaper By Tim McGuinness, Ph.D.

Scam Trauma Syndrome is a term that we have termed at the Society of Citizens Against Romance ScamsScams A Scam is a confidence trick - a crime -  is an attempt to defraud a person or group after first gaining their trust through deception. Scams or confidence tricks exploit victims using their credulity, naïveté, compassion, vanity, irresponsibility, or greed and exploiting that. Researchers have defined confidence tricks as "a distinctive species of fraudulent conduct ... intending to further voluntary exchanges that are not mutually beneficial", as they "benefit con operators ('con men' - criminals) at the expense of their victims (the 'marks')". A scam is a crime even if no money was lost. [SCARS] for the trauma that Romance Scam Victims experience as a result of their scam discovery, it is based (in part) upon the extensive research and awareness of a similar type of trauma called Rape Trauma Syndrome and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

To a large extent, the experience of a Romance Scam is (in our view) a form of psychological rape.

Over more than two decades we have been observing the evolution of romance scams in their various forms we have seen that there are a number of traumatic effects that are layered upon each other, producing, in many cases profound impact on the victim. Unfortunately, this has not been well studied in academic research, and as a result, relies on anecdotal evidence.

STS is the psychological trauma experienced by a romance scam victim that includes disruptions to normal physical, emotional, cognitive, and interpersonal behaviorBehavior   Behavior / Behavioral Actions Otherwise known as habits, behavior or behavioral actions are strategies to help prevent online exploitation that target behavior, such as social engineering of victims. Changing your behavior is the ONLY effective means to reduce or prevent scams..

Scam Trauma Syndrome is based upon the theory of Rape Trauma Syndrome that was first described by psychiatrist Ann Wolbert Burgess and sociologist Lynda Lytle Holmstrom in 1974. We believe that Scam Trauma Syndrome for romance scam victims has many of the characteristics and longer-term trauma almost identical to that of rape victims – notably, without the physical violence that accompanies rape.

We characterize Scam Trauma Syndrome as a cluster of psychological and physical signs, symptoms, and reactions common to most romance scam victims immediately following and for months or years after a romance scam. While most research into RTS has focused on female victims, sexually abused males (whether by male or female perpetrators) also exhibit RTS symptoms. Likewise, both male and female victims of romance scams also show symptoms of STS.

Rape Trauma Syndrome

RTS paved the way for consideration of complex post-traumatic stress disorder, which can more accurately describe the consequences of serious protracted trauma than posttraumatic stress disorder alone. The symptoms of RTS and post-traumatic stress syndrome overlap. As might be expected, a person who has been raped will generally experience high levels of distress immediately afterward. These feelings may subside over time for some people; however, individually each syndrome can have long devastating effects on victims and some victims will continue to experience some form of psychological distress for months or years. It has also been found that rape survivorsSurvivor A Scam Survivor is a victim who has been able to fully accept the reality of their situation. That they were the victim of a crime and are not to blame. They are working on their emotional recovery and reduction of any trauma either on their own, through a qualified support organization, or through counseling or therapy. And has done their duty and reported the crime to their local police, national police, and on Anyscam.com are at high risk for developing substance use disorders, major depression, generalized anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and eating disorders.

Scam Trauma Syndrome

Like RTS, STS victims suffer similar complex post-traumatic stress disorder. However, it also layers upon these two additional factors:

  1. Grief caused by the sudden disappearance of a loved one – in this case, the false relationship perpetrated by the romance scam, and
  2. Addiction withdrawal caused by the Amygdala HijackAmygdala Hijack Amygdala Hijack An amygdala hijack refers to a personal, emotional response that is immediate, overwhelming, and out of measure (proportion) with the actual stimulus because it has triggered a much more significant emotional threat or hormonal response. This can include: Anger, Sadness, Love, Desire, etc. that scammers rely upon to capture their victim during the romance scam.

In reviewing the literature on RTS, we see many parallels with Scam Trauma Syndrome that we are exploring in this document.

In STS we see three stages of psychological trauma a romance scam survivorSurvivor A Scam Survivor is a victim who has been able to fully accept the reality of their situation. That they were the victim of a crime and are not to blame. They are working on their emotional recovery and reduction of any trauma either on their own, through a qualified support organization, or through counseling or therapy. And has done their duty and reported the crime to their local police, national police, and on Anyscam.com goes through:

  • Acute Stage
  • Outer Adjustment Stage
  • Renormalization Stage

We hope that articulating the similarity between romance scam trauma and that of rape that it will allow for a framework that will aid psychological professionals to employ proven techniques to assist romance scam victims to better recover. Unfortunately, in the vast majority of scam victims, we see no real formalized recovery solutions available, and when intervention does occur it is more of a criminalCriminal A criminal is any person who through a decision or act engages in a crime. This can be complicated, as many people break laws unknowingly, however, in our context, it is a person who makes a decision to engage in unlawful acts or to place themselves with others who do this. A criminal always has the ability to decide not to break the law, or if they initially engage in crime to stop doing it, but instead continues. intervention rather than supporting the victims’ psychological or physical traumatic state.

We hope that this whitepaper will encourage further exploration and study of this trauma to find better and more rapid solutions for victim recovery.

Acute Stage

The Acute Stage occurs in the days or weeks after a romance scam. Durations vary as to the amount of time the victim may remain in the Acute Stage. The immediate symptoms may last a few days to a few weeks and may overlap with the outward adjustment stage. However, these symptoms may linger for months to more than a year.

During this stage, we see similarities to what the U.S. Rape Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) asserts: that in most cases, a rape victim’s acute stage can be classified as one of three responses: expressed (“He or she may appear agitated or hysterical, [and] may suffer from crying spells or anxiety attacks”); controlled (“the survivorSurvivor A Scam Survivor is a victim who has been able to fully accept the reality of their situation. That they were the victim of a crime and are not to blame. They are working on their emotional recovery and reduction of any trauma either on their own, through a qualified support organization, or through counseling or therapy. And has done their duty and reported the crime to their local police, national police, and on Anyscam.com appears to be without emotion and acts as if nothing happened and everything is fine”); or shock/disbelief (“the survivor reacts with a strong sense of disorientation. They may have difficulty concentrating, making decisions, or doing everyday tasks. They may also have poor recall of the assault”). Not all rape survivors show their emotions outwardly. Some may appear calm and unaffected by the assault.

We see virtually the same thing in romance scam victims, which have been typically viewed through the lens of grief stages.

Behaviors present in the Acute stage can include:

  • DenialDenial Denial is a refusal or unwillingness to accept something or to accept reality. Refusal to admit the truth or reality of something, refusal to acknowledge something unpleasant; And as a term of Psychology: denial is a defense mechanism in which confrontation with a personal problem or with reality is avoided by denying the existence of the problem or reality. and disbelief in the occurrence of the scam
  • Diminished alertness
  • Dulled sensory, affective, and memory functions
  • Disorganized thought content
  • Paralyzing anxiety
  • Secrecy and prevarication
  • Pronounced internal tremor (when the scammer reappears)
  • Hysteria, confusion, and crying
  • Bewilderment and confusion about how it occurred
  • ShameShame Shame is an unpleasant self-conscious emotion typically associated with a negative evaluation of the self; withdrawal motivations; and feelings of distress, exposure, mistrust, powerlessness, and worthlessness. and acute sensitivity to the reaction of other people
  • RageRage Anger, also known as wrath or rage, is an intense emotional state involving a strong uncomfortable and non-cooperative response to a perceived provocation, trigger, hurt or threat. About one-third of scam victims become trapped in anger for extended periods of time following a scam. A person experiencing anger will often experience physical effects, such as increased heart rate, elevated blood pressure, and increased levels of adrenaline and noradrenaline. Some view anger as an emotion that triggers a part of the fight or flight response. Anger becomes the predominant feeling behaviorally, cognitively, and physiologically. Anger can have many physical and mental consequences. While most of those who experience anger explain its arousal as a result of "what has happened to them", psychologists point out that an angry person can very well be mistaken because anger causes a loss in self-monitoring capacity and objective observability. and angerAnger Anger, also known as wrath or rage, is an intense emotional state involving a strong uncomfortable and non-cooperative response to a perceived provocation, trigger, hurt or threat. About one-third of scam victims become trapped in anger for extended periods of time following a scam. A person experiencing anger will often experience physical effects, such as increased heart rate, elevated blood pressure, and increased levels of adrenaline and noradrenaline. Some view anger as an emotion that triggers a part of the fight or flight response. Anger becomes the predominant feeling behaviorally, cognitively, and physiologically. Anger can have many physical and mental consequences. While most of those who experience anger explain its arousal as a result of "what has happened to them", psychologists point out that an angry person can very well be mistaken because anger causes a loss in self-monitoring capacity and objective observability. against the scammer and anyone that does not align with the victims’ beliefs
  • Self-directed loathing

When threats of violence post scam have also occurred following the romance scam:

  • Panic and terror
  • Suicidal thoughts and actions

In the traditional Grief Cycle this corresponds to the:

  • Denial Stage
  • Anger Stage
  • Bargaining Stage

It is during this Acute Stage that the romance scam victim is most easily re-victimized numerous times. This can occur in any of the following ways:

  • The reappearance of the scammer in their own identity admitting the scam but that the scammer does love the victim
  • The appearance of a fake recovery solution to make the victim whole financially
  • The appearance of a fake savior who will arrest the scammer
  • Rebounding into online dating creating the certainty of a new scam relationship

It is also during this Stage that the romance scam victim will turn to obsession over the real identity of the scammer. This will either be a need to understand how this can be done to them, or for revenge.

Obsession can also appear in the case of false identities, where the victim will transfer that false relationship with the scammer onto the real person whose images were used by the scammer.

The Outward Adjustment Stage

Romance Scam Survivors in this stage seem to have resumed their normal lifestyle. However, they simultaneously suffer profound internal turmoil, which may manifest in a variety of ways as the survivor copes with the long-term trauma of a romance scam. In a 1976 paper, Burgess and Holmstrom note that all but 1 of their 92 subjects exhibited maladaptive coping mechanisms after a rape. We see different ratios in the case of romance scam survivors. We see that fully 25% of romance scam victims do not appear to develop these coping mechanisms without outside intervention.

The Outward Adjustment Stage may last from several months to many years after a romance scam.

We believe the main coping strategies during the Outward Adjustment Stage are:

  • Continued Denial (there was “never a scam”)
  • Minimization (pretending everything is fine)
  • Dramatization (excessive – cannot stop talking about the scam)
  • Suppression and Shame (cannot talk about it or its impact on the victim)
  • Explanation (analyzes what happened)
  • Collapse (the financial impact are catastrophic, causing a loss of independence)

Other coping mechanisms that may appear during the Outward Adjustment Stage include:

  • Poor health in general (caused by either a lack of attention or the financial loss)
  • Continuing anxiety
  • Sense of helplessness
  • HypervigilanceHypervigilance Hypervigilance is when the nervous system is not correctly filtering sensory information and the individual is in an enhanced state of sensory sensitivity. This appears to be linked to a dysregulated nervous system which can often be caused by traumatic events or PTSD. Normally, the nervous system releases stress signals in certain situations as a defense mechanism to protect people from perceived dangers. In some cases, the nervous system becomes chronically dysregulated, causing a release of stress signals that are inappropriate to the situation and create inappropriate and exaggerated responses. Hypervigilance may bring about a state of increased anxiety which can cause exhaustion. Other symptoms include: abnormally increased arousal, a high responsiveness to stimuli, and a constant scanning of the environment. and Fear of online connection
  • Inability to maintain previously close relationships
  • Experiencing a general response of nervousness known as the “startle response” to online contacts
  • Persistent fear and or depression at much higher rates than the general population
  • Mood swings from relatively happy to depression or anger
  • Extreme persistent anger and hostility (more typical of male victims)
  • Sleep disturbances such as vivid dreams and recurring nightmares
  • Insomnia, wakefulness, night terrors
  • Relationship flashbacksFLASHBACKS A flashback is reexperiencing a previous traumatic experience as if it were actually happening in that moment. It includes reactions that often resemble the client’s reactions during the trauma. Flashback experiences are very brief and typically last only a few seconds, but the emotional aftereffects linger for hours or longer. Flashbacks are commonly initiated by a trigger, but not necessarily.
  • Dissociation (feeling like one is not attached to one’s body or life)
  • Panic attacks
  • Extreme sadness (crying or breaking down) when discussing the false relationship and the aftermath
  • Reliance on coping mechanisms, some of which may be beneficial (e.g., philosophy and family support), and others that may ultimately be counterproductive (e.g., self-harm, drug, or alcohol abuse)

Romance Scams Victims’ Lifestyle

Victims or Survivors in this stage can have their lifestyle affected in some of the following ways:

  • Their sense of personal security or safety is damaged or destroyed
  • They feel hesitant to enter new relationships only even with reliable friends of friends
  • Questioning their identity, stability, and intelligence
  • Financial instability resulting from the monetary loses

Romance scam survivors may face significant financial difficulty because of the monetary losses. This can include

  • Loss of property due to the inability to afford them
  • Loss of home
  • Becoming a financial burden on family members and/or friends
  • Having to work more – more jobs, more hours, or more years before retirement
  • Loss of retirement savings profoundly affecting their future life

Personal relationships become disturbed. Many scam survivors have reported that they were unable to re-establish normal close relationships and have given up on a future relationship.

Physiological responses

Whether or not they were financially injured during a romance scam, scam survivors exhibit higher rates of poor health in the months and years after the romance scam (per our observations), including acute somatoform disorders (physical symptoms with no identifiable cause) similar to that of rape victims. Physiological reactions such as tension headaches, fatigue, general feelings of soreness, or localized pain in the chest, throat, arms or legs.

Underground Stage

  • Victims attempt to return to their lives as if nothing happened
  • May blockBlock Blocking is a technical action usually on social media or messaging platforms that restricts or bans another profile from seeing or communicating with your profile. To block someone on social media, you can usually go to their profile and select it from a list of options - often labeled or identified with three dots ••• thoughts of the scam from their minds and may not want to talk about the incident or any of the related issues. (They don’t want to think about it)
  • Victims may have difficulty in concentrating and some depression
  • Dissociation and trying to get back to their lives before the scam
  • The Underground Stage for some may last for years and the victim seems as though they are “over it”, despite the fact the emotional issues are not resolved

Reorganization Stage

  • May return to emotional turmoil
  • The return of emotional pain can extremely frighten people in this stage
  • Fears and phobiasPhobia Phobias are one of the most common mental illnesses in the United States. The National Institute of Mental Health suggests that 8% of U.S. adults have some type of phobia. Women are more likely to experience phobias than men. Typical symptoms of phobias can include nausea, trembling, rapid heartbeat, feelings of unreality, and being preoccupied with the fear object. The American Psychiatric Association (APA) identifies three different categories of phobias: social phobias, agoraphobia, and specific phobias.1 When people talk about having a phobia of a specific object such as snakes, spiders, or needles, they are referring to a specific phobia. may develop. They may be related specifically to the circumstances scam or they may be much more generalized
  • Appetite disturbances. Scam survivors may also be prone to developing eating disorders, especially overeating
  • Nightmares, night terrors feel like they plague the victim
  • Violent fantasies of revenge may also arise (especially in men)

The Renormalization Stage

In this stage, the scam survivor begins to recognize his or her adjustment phase.

Recognizing the impact of the scam for survivors who were in denial, and recognizing the secondary damage of any counterproductive coping tactics (e.g., recognizing that one’s alcohol abuse began to help cope with the aftermath of a scam) is particularly important.

Male victims typically do not seek therapy or support for a long time after the romance scam – our experience shows less than 5% of male victims sought therapy or support within six months and they never seek support of any kind. With women, about 25-30% seek support within 6 months, and approximately 50% within one year.

During renormalization, survivors integrate the romance scam and its aftermath into their lives so that the scam is no longer the central focus of their lives; negative feelings such as guilt and shame become resolved, and survivors no longer blameBlame Blame or Blaming is the act of censuring, holding responsible, making negative statements about an individual or group that their action or actions are socially or morally irresponsible, the opposite of praise. When someone is morally responsible for doing something wrong, their action is blameworthy. By contrast, when someone is morally responsible for doing something right, we may say that his or her action is praiseworthy. Blame imparts responsibility for an action or act, as in that they made a choice to perform that act or action. themselves for the scam. However, the financial impacts can be long-term and in some cases permanent.

Summary

We believe that a comparison between the Rape Trauma Syndrome and Scam Trauma Syndrome helps provide a deeper understanding of the trauma romance scam victims experience and that as a result can lead to better support mechanisms at every stage of their recovery process. We believe that the victims of scams and its effect require significantly greater study given the extreme numbers of victims worldwide.

Disclaimer

This is not intended to be a psychological diagnosis or recommendation for clinical therapy of any kind. Always consult a licensed psychologist, psychiatrist, or therapist for diagnosis or treatment of any kind. This document is intended for educational and discussion purposes only, and the author accepts no responsibility for your application or use of this information.

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Society of Citizens Against Relationship ScamsSCARS SCARS - Society of Citizens Against Relationship Scams Inc. A government registered crime victims' assistance & crime prevention nonprofit organization based in Miami, Florida, U.S.A. SCARS supports the victims of scams worldwide and through its partners in more than 60 countries around the world. Incorporated in 2015, its team has 30 years of continuous experience educating and supporting scam victims. Visit www.AgainstScams.org to learn more about SCARS. Inc.

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By the SCARS™ Editorial Team
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A Worldwide Crime Victims Assistance & Crime Prevention Nonprofit Organization Headquartered In Miami Florida USA & Monterrey NL Mexico, with Partners In More Than 60 Countries
To Learn More, Volunteer, or Donate Visit: www.AgainstScams.org
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  1. Pamela S. Mielitz July 27, 2018 at 12:40 am - Reply

    Thank you for the information this is very helpful to me!

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