Salon.com just posted an article about online romance scams, Facebook status: In a scam relationship, by Tracy Clark-Flory. The scams run like this:
- Perp finds a target online.
- They communicate via email, text and sometimes phone.
- Perp proclaims undying love.
- Maybe perp sends flowers and stuffed teddy bears.
- Perp suddenly has a dire emergency and needs money.
- Target sends money, and keeps sending money until there’s none left.
Apparently, romance scams—known as “love fraud,” according to the article—are a growth industry. The story quoted a man named Rob who lost $14,000 to a woman he never met. He is now a volunteer for RomanceScams.org, which has counseled 50,000 people who believe they were swindled.
According to Salon:
Many of the scammers are based in Nigeria, home of the infamous 419 email scam — love fraud is a much savvier twist on that old formula. “Scammers search chat rooms, dating sites, and social networking sites looking for victims,” warns the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center. “The principal group of victims is over 40 years old and divorced, widowed, elderly, or disabled, but all demographics are at risk.” The perpetrators investigate the target by doing a Google search on their name and scouring their online profiles. “Once they have all that information, they create a character that is specific to you and your desires,” Rob says. “In short, they create your dream mate, and they’re very good at what they do, unfortunately.”
The con artists frequently pose as soldiers serving in Afghanistan or Iraq. The problem has gotten so bad that the military has issued press releases warning people not to fall for soldiers asking for money so they can go on leave. Read:
CID warns of Internet romance scams, on Army.mil
Army stresses caution to combat scammers, on Military.com
The Salon article explains how the scammers hook the targets, and the process is familiar to all of us who have been snagged by sociopaths: “The scammers get the target to reveal their most delicate feelings and secrets; and a sense of real intimacy often develops.” And that’s the reason the scams work—people are looking for love.
Plenty of readers commented on the article. Most of the comments expressed this view: Anyone who falls for an online romance scam is a complete idiot.
Read the article and comments:
Facebook status: In a scam relationship, on Salon.com.
Why send money to Nigeria?
Lovefraud has heard from people who have fallen for these online scams. And even though I know how convincing sociopaths are, I must admit that these cases perplexed me.
Yes, I lost $227,000 to my con artist ex-husband. But he was physically with me. He looked me in the eye, made his promises, turned on the tears when necessary. He had sex with me, which released all that oxytocin, the trust hormone. He brought me around to his business friends, creating the illusion that he truly was an entrepreneur.
I know why I gave him my money. But why anyone would send money to a person they never met who lives in Nigeria?
I think the answer lies in the power of our own minds, and I’ll take you through my reasoning.
First of all, it is very possible to have accepting, positive thoughts about people we’ve only met over the computer—just look at all the friendships that have developed here on Lovefraud. Taking this a step further to romance isn’t difficult.
We may not really know what the person looks like or sounds like, because we’ve never met. But as I explain on the Lovefraud.com page about Online Seduction, we fill in any gaps in our knowledge about a potential romantic partner with fantasy:
When you meet people in the real world, you notice their height, weight, grooming, voice, mannerisms—and immediately form conclusions about them. All of this information is missing in e-mail correspondence. You can’t see, smell or touch the person. You don’t even really know if you’re communicating with a man or a woman.
So what do you do? You imagine the person is what you want him or her to be.
Essentially what happens is that in an online romance, we fall in love with our own fantasy. We create an image in our minds of what the person is, and how the person feels about us. And we believe it.
I referred briefly to oxytocin above. This hormone is thought to be released during hugging, touching and orgasm in both men and women, and acts as a neurochemical in the brain. According to Wikipedia:
Oxytocin evokes feelings of contentment, reductions in anxiety, and feelings of calmness and security around the mate. Many studies have already shown a correlation of oxytocin with human bonding, increases in trust, and decreases in fear.
Oxytocin serves a normal and important function in the human bonding process—it makes us feel calm and trusting with our mates. Nature probably gave us oxytocin so that we want to stay with our partners to raise children, thus helping the survival of the species.
But because it fosters trust, oxytocin can also help us get conned. Paul J. Zak explains this in a post on Psychology Today called How to run a con:
Social interactions engage a powerful brain circuit that releases the neurochemical oxytocin when we are trusted and induces a desire to reciprocate the trust we have been shown—even with strangers.
The key to a con is not that you trust the conman, but that he shows he trusts you. Conmen ply their trade by appearing fragile or needing help, by seeming vulnerable. Because of oxytocin and its effect on other parts of the brain, we feel good when we help others—this is the basis for attachment to family and friends and cooperation with strangers. “I need your help” is a potent stimulus for action.
So, oxytocin doesn’t necessarily require sex in order to be released. It can be triggered by other social interactions—perhaps even those conducted via electronic media.
Oxytocin is released in the brain and causes feelings of trust. But that isn’t the only way in which love affects the brain. According to Dr. Helen Fisher, romantic love actually causes a rewiring of the brain. She also believes that romantic love is an addiction.
For more on the neurological processes involved in romantic love, read:
The drive to love: The neural mechanism for mate selection on HelenFisher.com.
You’ve probably heard of the “placebo effect.” Physicians and researchers have long known that people in clinical trials of drugs frequently experience the benefits of the drug, even though they are taking the placebo. Because they believe they are taking the drug, they believe they will get better, and they do.
This is not just an imaginary improvement. According to an article on MSNBC, “research shows that belief in a dummy treatment leads to changes in brain chemistry.” In other words, belief can be just as strong as actual medication.
Read Placebo’s power goes beyond the mind on MSNBC.MSN.com.
And here’s another aspect of the brain: Research has found that the physical structure of the brain isn’t nearly as static as once thought. As explained in Time Magazine:
For decades, the prevailing dogma in neuroscience was that the adult human brain is essentially immutable, hardwired, fixed in form and function, so that by the time we reach adulthood we are pretty much stuck with what we have.
But research in the past few years has overthrown the dogma. In its place has come the realization that the adult brain retains impressive powers of “neuroplasticity”—the ability to change its structure and function in response to experience.
Read How the brain rewires itself on Time.com
The point, therefore, is that the brain is changeable, and it doesn’t necessarily require drugs or a physical incident in order to change. Thoughts and beliefs have the power to change the brain.
Power of imagination
So where am I going with all this? Here is what I think may be happening in romance scams:
- The perp contacts the target, gradually building the target’s love and trust.
- The target believes that the perp is real and they are in a romantic relationship.
- Because of the target’s belief, oxytocin is released in the brain, even though there is no physical touching.
- The belief in love also rewires the brain, just as it does in a real relationship.
- The target may even become addicted to the relationship.
- The target is primed to be conned.
My theory, then, is that in an online romance scam, we believe we are in a true romantic relationship. Our belief causes all the same brain changes that a real world relationship causes. Because of the power of our imaginations, we may be just as susceptible to online scams as we are to real life scams.
Come to think of it, this is probably why we fall for the real life scams. We believe the love is true, even though it isn’t.