As millions of people get hooked to online dating platforms, their proliferation has led to online romance scams becoming a modern form of fraud that have spread in several societies along with the development of social media like Facebook Dating, warn researchers.
For example, extra-marital dating app Gleeden has crossed 1 million users in India in COVID-19 times while dating apps like Tinder and Bumble have gained immense popularity.
According to researchers from University of Siena and Scotte University Hospital led by Andrea Pozza, via a fictitious Internet profile, the scammer develops a romantic relationship with the victim for 6-8 months, building a deep emotional bond to extort economic resources in a manipulative dynamic.
“There are two notable features: on the one hand, the double trauma of losing money and a relationship, on the other, the victim’s shame upon discovery of the scam, an aspect that might lead to underestimation of the number of cases,” the authors wrote in a paper published in the journal Clinical Practice & Epidemiology in Mental Health.
Around 1,400 dating sites/chats have been created over the last decade in North America alone. In the UK, 23 per cent of Internet users have met someone online with whom they had a romantic relationship for a certain period and even 6 per cent of married couples met through the web.
“The online dating industry has given rise to new forms of pathologies and crime, said the authors.
The results showed that 63 per cent of social media users and 3 per cent of the general population reported having been a victim at least once.
Women, middle-aged people, and individuals with higher tendencies to anxiety, romantic idealization of affective relations, impulsiveness and susceptibility to relational addiction are at higher risk of being victims of the scam.
Online romance scams are, in other words, relationships constructed through websites for the purpose of deceiving unsuspecting victims in order to extort money from them.
The scammer always acts empathetically and attempts to create the impression in the victim that the two are perfectly synced in their shared view of life.
“The declarations of the scammer become increasingly affectionate and according to some authors, a declaration of love is made within two weeks from initial contact,” the study elaborated.
After this hookup phase, the scammer starts talking about the possibility of actually meeting up, which will be postponed several times due to apparently urgent problems or desperate situations such as accidents, deaths, surgeries or sudden hospitalizations for which the unwitting victim will be manipulated into sending money to cover the momentary emergency.
Using the strategy of “testing-the-water”, the scammer asks the victim for small gifts, usually to ensure the continuance of the relationship, such as a webcam, which, if successful, leads to increasingly expensive gifts up to large sums of money.
When the money arrives from the victim, the scammer proposes a new encounter.
The request for money can also be made to cover the travel costs involved in the illusory meeting. In this phase, the victim may start having second thoughts or showing doubt about the intentions of the partner and gradually decide to break off the relationship.
“In other cases, the fraudulent relationship continues or even reinforces itself as the victim, under the influence of ambivalent emotions of ardor and fear of abandonment and deception, denies or rationalizes doubts to manage their feelings,” said the study.
In some cases, the scammer may ask the victim to send intimate body photos that will be used as a sort of implicit blackmail to further bind the victim to the scammer.
Once the scam is discovered, the emotional reaction of the victim may go through various phases: feelings of shock, anger or shame, the perception of having been emotionally violated (a kind of emotional rape), loss of trust in people, a sensation of disgust towards oneself or the perpetrator of the crime and a feeling of mourning.
“Understanding the psychological characteristics of victims and scammers will allow at-risk personality profiles to be identified and prevention strategies to be developed,” the authors suggested.