Wednesday, February 9, 2022

Mind Over Matter: How a Romantic Scam Works


The phone rings. Rodney doesn't recognize the number. He steps away from his friends to take the call. The person on the other end claims to be from the bank. He is asking about a transaction of $23,000 to New Jersey. Rodney's first instinct is to dismiss the call as a wire scam. But before he hangs up, he asks which account the money was coming out of. This is when he discovers his 77 year-old mother was attempting to send money to a Ron White. Rodney flags the transaction and promises to get his mother in touch with the bank as soon as possible.

But he soon discovers that this had not been the first transaction. His mother had already sent $18,000 in gift cards to her new love. Ron White, who she had met on a dating app, claimed to be a comedian who was head over hills for her and wanted to marry her. But he claimed his money was tied up in his management. He only needed some money to buy out his contract and be 100% with her. She was in, hook, line and sinker.

A recent Netflix documentary, Tinder Swindler, has brough worldwide attention to online romantic scams. Romantic scams are however nothing new. The number of complaints about romance  scams, according to the US Federal Trade Commission, grew from 11,235 in 2016 to 52,593  in 2020. This was a four fold increase, with losses exceeding $300,000. People aged between 40 and 69 are most likely to report losing money to online scams. But it is people aged 70 or older who have the highest median losses at $9,500. 

But what makes a romantic scam successful? Are the victims simply too blind to see, to stupid to realize? Or are the scammers so suave, that they could capture any target they choose? The first stage in the process is the profile. The criminal creates one or several elaborate stories, pictures and videos to support his/her lies. The next step is grooming. The criminal identifies a target and begins showering them with attention and affection over a period of time. In the final stage, the sting, the target is made to "rescue" the scammer from various financial situations. The scam continues until the victim loses not just what they have, but what they can borrow as well.

But what makes a victim susceptible to a romantic ruse? Romance scam victims tend to be middle-aged, well-educated women, with impulsive, addictive disposition. Many victims describe their scammers as their "ideal partner." In fact, they very often grieve the romantic loss more than they do the financial loss. 

One rationale supporting this entanglement of fake and reality, is exaggerated romantic imagery.  Romantic imagery is defined as the mental imagery of an object of romantic love. A more intense romantic imagery is needed to maintain an online romantic relationship than a conventional one.  Scammers often pretend to be the ideal partners fitting into the romantic imagery of the victims. 

Mental image ability ranges from aphantasia, reduced extraversion, to hyperphantaisa, increased openness.  Online relationships may work better in individuals with greater romantic imagery.  Beatrice Portinari inspired Dante Alighieri's Vita Nuova, despite the fact that the poet had only met her twice before. He described her as his, "...muse, true love, salvation, and guide" in “Heaven in Divine Comedy.” 

So what then? Can we be saved or protected from romantic scams? Victims of romance scams suffer shame, embarrassment, shock and  anger. They may also experience anxiety, stress, fear, depression, or even suicidal ideation. In fact, the embarrassment is often so great that many victims suffer alone and in silence. Beyond the therapy, through the grieving of lost love and finances, victims need to learn how to identify their own vulnerabilities. Skilled and experienced therapists can help actual and potential victims to build different images based on the expected grooming cues of a scammer.

Scammers are professionals who spend months or years to formulate detailed long cons.  Victims continue to vividly imagine their fake lovers for a long time. Dismantling their affection by simply revealing that their object of love is a scam, is not as easy as it seems. Rodney's mother truly believed she had found love. When her son took control of her bank accounts, she refused to let go of her new love. She took out loans from shady places and even one against her car. By the time the "comedian" closed his act, he had cleaned her out of nearly $40,000, leaving her heartbroken and in debt.

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