Romance frauds - the reality: Building better protections

Romance frauds involve a criminal engaging in a romantic relationship with the sole aim of manipulating their target in order to devastate them financially. Fraudsters will use any tactics they can to identify and exploit a victim's vulnerabilities, hopes and romantic aspirations; engaging in emotional and psychological manipulation long before any financial exploitation takes place. By the time the fraudster asks for money, the grooming process means that the victim is unlikely to recognise their intentions as criminal.

Indeed, almost two in five people who dated someone they met online in the last year said they were asked to give or lend money despite having never met in-person, according to a new survey by UK Finance's Take Five to Stop Fraud campaign, while over half of those who were asked for money said that they gave it or lent it.

There have been great strides since my ?call to arms? at the UK Finance Economic Crime Congress 2020 to recognise that victims of romance fraud are not foolish, greedy or lacking in understanding, but have been manipulated in a way similar to coercive control and domestic violence and abuse. I advocated for strategic change in the messages we deliver to the public, and in tackling the narratives of victim blaming that prevent victims from coming forward. You can read the academic work behind this here.

Although narratives are changing, we still need to do more. We need to use that understanding in ways that are more effective in protecting individuals. To do this, we need to move away from example-led public guidance on how to protect yourself from romance fraud.


Case studies run the risk of reducing romance fraud to a set of very specific situations which are only likely to resonate with a victim if they are in that same situation, and campaigns could inadvertently reinforce a victim's false sense of security in the legitimacy of their (fraudulent) relationship. Instead, awareness and prevention and protection literature must also draw on frameworks and principles of manipulation such as scripting, genre mapping and visceral responses, and, wider, how the social and moral requirements of society that underpin all interactions are manipulated to compel compliance from victims without causing concern.

It's simply not possible for individuals to be able to take a step back and realise they are being manipulated. As a key part of that manipulation is being groomed into a position where reality is so distorted that it's not recognisable as fraud. Warning signs and ?red flags? are made to appear as though they are normal, expected behaviour; questioning that behaviour is then twisted into being odd or aggressive. Reality is turned on its head.

This national police resource is an example of public-facing literature that is successfully helping victims to recognise the reality of the situation they are in and escape from fraudulent relationships.

The future

Fraudsters tap into the human, in-built norms and values in order to manipulate people into making decisions that are against their own interests. Therein lies the unique psychological harm of fraud - the violation of which has been described by victims as akin to rape - as, to successfully defraud someone, it requires the victim to be complicit in their own exploitation. This causes shame, self-doubt, damage to one's ability to trust, and many other psychological harms that can continue long after the crime is complete.

The language of fraud prevention can help victims by better reflecting the lived experience and reality of romance fraud. This in turn would increase the likelihood of victims recognising what is happening to them, give them the tools to recognise it, and empower them to report the crime. It would make it easier for friends and family to recognise and understand the situation a victim is in, and make ways to support them easier to identify. The first step is for public-facing literature to treat this crime as a type of grooming and ensure that warning signs of romance fraud are framed around these types of behaviours. Phrases such as ?fall for?, ?conned?, 'swindled? ?if it's too good to be true, it probably is? and any that make it appear easy for a victim in the throes of a romance fraud to recognise their exploitation, need to be avoided.

Subtle changes will help victims and their families identify that a romance fraud is occurring and in reflecting the coercive nature of romance fraud communications, effective advice can highlight the psychological manipulation and the serious, multifaceted harm of this crime.

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