Daydream Believer: Who Is Most Vulnerable to Romance Scams?

5 min read

Louis (not his real name) felt lonely after his wife of many years died of cancer. He decided to look abroad for a new spouse and joined one of the many “foreign bride” matchmaking sites. The 60-year-old widower was contacted by “Julia,” a 20-something Ukrainian woman. “Hello, handsome,” she wrote in her initial contact.

Over several months, the pair continued chatting via the romance website. Louis’s costs mounted quickly, as the site charged for everything—translation, sending a message, adding an emoji, and so on. The site also blocked any attempt to reveal last names, street or email addresses, and phone numbers. Julia began dropping hints that she lacked funds to pay for Internet access. Then, she didn’t have enough food to eat. Next, she needed to move and didn’t have money for rent. Her financial needs were endless, but Louis was in love, and apparently, so was Julia. She had accepted his marriage proposal and seemed eager to join him in America. Whenever she asked, Louis wired money.

The fateful day came when Louis purchased a $3,000 engagement ring and flew to Ukraine to meet his presumptive bride. Julia continued to chat with him via the matchmaking site but offered one excuse after another as to why she could not come to his hotel. Louis—in for a penny, in for a pound—stayed in Ukraine for more than a month, waiting in vain for his phantom paramour.

When he returned home at last, and without his beloved, Louis received a text from “Ivan,” a friend of Julia’s. Ivan offered his sympathies for Louis’s predicament, but there was a solution. Ivan could provide Julia’s full name, physical address, and contact information. This information would cost a mere $1,500. Louis paid. Then Ivan needed money for a lawyer to help Julia with her visa. After that, Louis was asked to pay visa fees, courier fees, translation fees, and so on until he finally wised up and stopped sending money. That’s when Ivan and Julia started taunting and threatening him until he went to the FBI.

“Julia” was most likely a shill paid by the matchmaking website to lead men on so they would spend more and more money on translation and messaging services. This type of scam is called “pig butchering.” A person seeking love online is lured by a scammer into believing there is a true love connection between them. This emotional attachment is then used to exploit the victim for money. When the target stops sending money, a “reloading scam” may ensue. Another scammer (or the first one using a different name, such as “Ivan”) offers to help the victim recover his money or meet his true love.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) reports that romance scams have outpaced all other types of fraud: “In the past five years, people have reported losing a staggering $1.3 billion to romance scams, more than any other FTC fraud category.” As you’ll see, there are predictors as to who is most vulnerable to these swindles.

Four Factors of Vulnerability

Loneliness is not one of the four factors, but it is certainly a strong motivator. We live in an age of pervasive social atomization. The causes of and contributors to this problem are beyond the scope of this article. Isolation, family disintegration, and lack of meaningful friendships motivate people to look for love online when other opportunities for meeting someone are lacking.

Social scientists Susan Sprecher and Sandra Metts developed the “Romantic Beliefs Scale” to measure an individual’s predisposition to view love through the proverbial rose-colored glasses. It consists of 15 statements, which are rated on a scale of 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree). Here are a few sample questions from the test:

  • I believe to be truly in love is to be in love forever.
  • When I find my “true love,” I will probably know it soon after we meet.
  • I believe if another person and I love each other, we can overcome any differences and problems that may arise.
  • If I were in love with someone, I would commit myself to them even if my parents and friends disapproved of the relationship.
  • I need to know someone for a period of time before I fall in love with them.

Relationships Essential Reads

The Romantic Beliefs Scale measures four factors that predict trusting, uncritical, and romanticized beliefs about love: “Love finds a way”the belief that true love can survive any challenges; “one and only”the idea that there can be only one soulmate; “idealization”putting one’s true love on a pedestal; and “love at first sight”the view that there can be an instant and irrevocable bond with the right person. A lonely person who scores high on some or all of these beliefs is at high risk for exploitation by romance scammers, who excel at manipulating these expectations.

Of course, those with elevated scores on the Romantic Beliefs Scale aren’t the only people who can be victimized by love fraud. For example, people with borderline personality disorder have abandonment issues that might make them vulnerable. Those with insecure attachment styles may also succumb to the right scheme presented in just the right way. In fact, anyone who is open to a new relationship and doesn’t use good judgment can fall prey. But people with unrealistic expectations about love in general, and about online romance in particular, are money in the bank for romance con artists.

© Dale Hartley. Connect with me on social media.

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