When Monica Whitty and I connected for an interview for this blog, she also told me about some ESRC-funded research that she is conducting looking at an online dating scam (pdf).
Practically, the scenario’s pretty standard: scammers extract money from victims. However, the implications reach beyond personal finance; it tells us something about the intensity of the online environment as a field for the development of interpersonal trust and emotional commitment. It even helps us peer into the nature of love.
Here, Monica describes what it is and some of the early results - including who’s most at risk.
Myself and Tom Buchanan are researching the online dating romance scam. This has become a major problem in the UK. Our research has three main aims: 1. To develop the typology of the victims of the scam, 2. To examine the persuasive techniques employed by the scammers; 3. To examine the psychological impact this crime has on the victims. We hope that our research can be used to prevent this crime and to support victims of the crime.
We began the research in December, so it is still early days.
The crime occurs on both dating sites and social networking sites (our focus is currently on online dating sites). Someone creates a fake profile (often with an attractive photo – stolen). They contact the potential victim and attempt to get them off the dating site as quickly as possible, spending sometimes a couple of months, other times many months ‘grooming the potential victim’: telling them how much they love them and how they want to marry them.
The scenario often involves the scammer living in another country (e.g., American soldier in Iraq, American working in Nigeria) and that they have delayed for some reason to leave their post/job etc to meet the person. For various reasons they start to request money from the victim (e.g., for illness reasons, child sick, or for all the reasons often offered up in the 419 scam – money needing to be released from Ghana, Nigeria etc…). They typically ask for small amounts of money first and then keep upping the stakes – making it difficult to get out once it has started. The criminals are very clever in the way that are able to gain trust in these victims and make their stories seem believable to them.
We are finding, at present, more female victims than male, but this could be to do with under-reporting by men. In some cases they have mortgaged their houses etc. When they learn about the scam, the devastation is not just the loss of money but the loss of a ‘soul mate’, someone that they felt truly cared for them. So it is extremely heartbreaking. Some are so caught up in the narrative that they find it difficult to separate the fantasy from the reality. It can be embarrassing and shameful for them and makes it incredibly difficult to go back to the life they had prior to this crime.
We are currently working closely with SOCA, and we have had Parship (an online dating company) helping us. We hope to work with other online dating companies in the future to find ways to filter out the scammer’s profiles and find ways to protect more individuals more likely to be vulnerable to this crime.