By Ronnie Tokazowski
Over the years I have worked with many people who track romance scams. I’ve spoken to analysts, psychologists, police officers, federal law enforcement, and most painfully: the victims.
As an observer to many of these efforts, friends and family are normally the first to see changes in the victim. Moods start to drastically change, victims become distant, and an emotional wedge starts to be placed between loved ones, leading to the relationship being questioned. Because of the current stigma and misconceptions around just how deeply romance victims are abused, attempts to help often lead to more hurt, because external observers do not account for the victim’s perspective. Before digging into the psychology, and physiology, of romance victims, let’s touch on one of the biggest misconceptions: the stigma.
False: Romance Scam Victims are Stupid
The biggest misconception is that all romance victims are stupid. This feeling and sentiment stems from an outside observer pointing out that the victim’s story doesn’t add up, with the ending of the conversation being “you need to get out of the relationship, you’re being stolen from.” Outside parties struggle to comprehend why someone would continue staying in a relationship after being presented with this information, which leads them to jump to the simplest conclusion: the victim must be uneducated, naive, and unable to listen to an outside party.
While it is true that the victim may not want to get out of the relationship, there is much more going on inside the victim than meets the eye. Victims are not stupid and, sadly, human psychology and physiology have a lot to play in this.
True: Romance Victims are Love-Bombed by Their Handlers
With the hopes of finding that special someone, humans across the world rely on social media and dating applications to find someone to love. Romance victims start out lonely just like everyone else, and when they feel like they found that special someone looking for the same thing, great! Scammers will use any means necessary, including playing on religion or eternal love, to string potential victims along. Victims fall in love and become hooked, with their bodies releasing more dopamine and oxytocin the longer they’re in the relationship. Because scammers bombard them with love, attention, and affection, victims become blind to the unfolding situation. And, because of this, having an outside observer challenge something they know (to them) is true, they push outside observers away.
Victims send money to their loved ones in need, because they love them. Who wouldn’t send money to a loved one in need, especially if they promised to pay you back?
True: Romance Victims are in Abusive Relationships
While it may seem counter-intuitive, victims of abuse stay in relationships longer than they should, with these claims being backed up by decades of psychology. Romance victims are no different, with scammers using extensive psychological manipulation and grooming to force victims to send or receive money. Scammers lie about where the money will be used, and what for, leaving victims even more confused about what’s going on. Victims rationalize the behavior because “no one would ever be that heartless,” but many scammers really are that heartless. They don’t understand the full scope of the damage they’re causing, doing anything they can to make a dollar bill.
Romance victims are left psychologically and emotionally abused to the point where they become a shell of their former selves, with society turning a blind eye and labeling victims as stupid. They shut down, internalize everything, and lose all hope of getting out of the relationship.
How to Talk with Romance Victims
Be kind and gentle.
As you read this, you might have a family friend in mind who is a victim of a romance scam. You may have even talked with them and found yourself angry or frustrated because they couldn’t see through the crime. In your mind it’s fraud, but in their mind it’s love. Victims live in emotionally and psychologically abusive relationships, with decades of research explaining how difficult it is for victims to get out of the relationship. Victims rationalize the behavior of their abusers, making it even more difficult to get out of the relationship.
If a friend or family member is a victim, avoid being offensive or confrontational or the victim will emotionally shut down. It takes insurmountable strength and courage to come forward and talk about what’s going on, and if the victim senses any negativity they will quickly close up. Let the victim talk so they can explain things from their perspective because, to them, the person is real.
If You’re a Romance Victim…
It’s important to know that you are not alone and the emotions, feelings, and experiences you’re going through are completely valid. You have been lied to by someone who wanted to use you to make money, which can be extremely difficult to come to terms with. In addition, the body becomes physiologically dependent on the feel-good chemicals (dopamine and oxytocin), making it even harder to break the cycle.
It’s okay to ask for help. Talking with a therapist can give you the necessary tools to help guide yourself out of the situation. In addition, exercise and meditation can help victims regain control of the parasympathetic nervous system, or the part of the nervous system that’s responsible for calm and a sense of relaxation within our bodies. If you want to report any possible crimes to local law enforcement, be cautious, as many local police departments are still stuck in the ways of “victims are stupid.” It will take time for the stigma to lift, so the better place to report the crimes is IC3.gov.
And if you’re a victim and have made it this far, you’re a survivor. Don’t let the scammers keep taking advantage of you. You got this.
Unfortunately, there is no single technology solution to this type of crime. Instead, it’s best fought through user awareness. Cofense can help. Our BEC microsite offers scam resources, and guidance for contending with email and other types of compromise. You may also be interested in our blog post, Six-Year Reflection – What is Business Email Compromise Today.
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