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 Scams [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 behavior.
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 survivors 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:
- Grief caused by the sudden disappearance of a loved one – in this case, the false relationship perpetrated by the romance scam, and
- Addiction withdrawal caused by the Amygdala Hijack 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 survivor 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 criminal 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.
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 survivor 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:
- Denial 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
- Shame and acute sensitivity to the reaction of other people
- Rage and anger 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
- Hypervigilance 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 flashbacks
- 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.
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.
- Victims attempt to return to their lives as if nothing happened
- May block 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
- May return to emotional turmoil
- The return of emotional pain can extremely frighten people in this stage
- Fears and phobias 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 blame themselves for the scam. However, the financial impacts can be long-term and in some cases permanent.
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.
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.