How Romance Scammers Convince Their Victims

Updated: May 17, 2019

This post is a reprint from

 Issue #852  April 10, 2019

Romance scams are on the rise. Last year, they cost Americans, who were brave enough to admit they'd be tricked, $143 million. The real number is likely to be much higher because so many victims are too embarrassed to confess.

A February report from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) says the number of complaints they received jumped from 8,500 in 2015 to 21,000 last year.

 The median loss now stands at $2,600 per victim, although older folk on average lose much more, with over-70s losing a median $10,000.

You might wonder how people still fall for these tricksters, who we've written about several times. Desperation, loneliness and gullibility are obviously factors, but not always.

 Sometimes the scammers spin such a convincing story that even natural skeptics can be fooled into believing them.

"My experience working with scam victims and friends of scam victims, over a period of four years, highlights that it is very difficult to talk to someone about reality when they are caught in a scam,"

According to one-time victim Jan Marshall, author of Romance Scam Survivor: The Whole Sordid Story, getting people to acknowledge they're on the receiving end of a scam is a big challenge.

Marshall, an Australian who's dedicated to helping victims, said in an interview with the South China Morning Post newspaper: "My experience working with scam victims and friends of scam victims, over a period of four years, highlights that it is very difficult to talk to someone about reality when they are caught in a scam," she says. "There is no silver bullet. 
Scammers coach and almost hypnotize their victims into dismissing warnings from concerned friends and family


Scammers are extremely skilled at psychological manipulation. They lie without compunction and deliberately set out to part people from their money," she told the newspaper earlier this year.

So how do they convince their victims? 

Mostly they spend weeks, months or even years -- they can take their time because they have many "marks" on the go at any one time -- building what seems to be a meaningful online relationship, before claiming they've experienced some kind of misfortune, often a serious illness requiring expensive surgery or medical care.

 In other words, they turn the tables by setting themselves up as a victim and then building sympathy from the other person.

Convincing Words and Looks

Psychological tricks they use to convince victims include:

  • Asking for help toward airfare.

  • They may pretend they have, say, half the money but they just can't scrape enough together for the full fare. Because it seems they're willing to spend some of their own cash, the victim is more easily taken in.

  • Spinning stories of disasters and misfortunes over a lengthy time, during which they again claim they are using their own resources to meet the costs -- until they supposedly run out of money, just at a crucial time in the relationship.

  • Again, their seeming past willingness to cover their costs convinces the victim they genuinely ran out of cash.

  • Sending a photo that they claim is them, showing such a highly attractive person that victims suspend their belief and fall hook-line-and-sinker.

  • They shouldn't be able to believe their luck, but they do!

 You might remember a case a few years ago when a 68-year-old North Carolina physics professor flew to Bolivia to meet a person he believed was a famous bikini model. Instead, he learned the supposed model had left for Europe, where he was supposed to follow, bringing her suitcase. Of course, the suitcase was full of drugs when he was arrested.

  • Claiming to live in a foreign country, which makes it easier to avoid any attempts at meeting -- plus enabling the crook (who may actually be in the U.S.) to ask for help with an intercontinental fare.

  • Using what psychologists call coercive control. For example: becoming angry or aggressive if the victim shows any sign of wavering. The aim is to make the person feel guilty for their mistrust.

  • Isolating and monopolizing them. The scammers claim they want a serious relationship and suggest one-to-one email and texting, moving away from dating and social media sites where they met. Then the crooks, who may have hundreds of potential victims on the go at one time, use automated software to bombard the victim with messages.

If you're looking for romance or love online, here are the five key actions to avoid a scam:

  1. Never, but never, send money to an online sweetheart who you haven't met.

  2. Talk with an open mind with someone you trust as soon as the relationship looks serious.

  3. Don't rush or let them rush the relationship. Take it slowly.

  4. Ask questions and keep notes of conversations for cross-checking. Don't fall into the trap of just talking about yourself, which is what the scammer will try to get you to do.

  5. If they send you a photo, ask for more. Then do a reverse photo search.

Romance scams are now the number one con trick in the U.S. in terms of reported losses. Don't allow your feelings or desire for relationships cloud your judgment. It could cost you dearly.

Alert of the Week

The US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) warns that scammers are using their name and spoofing their phone numbers to claim victims have had their identity stolen.

 They're after your confidential information like Social Security numbers and financial account details.

The DHS doesn't phone members of the public about ID theft so you can safely ignore these calls. Just hang up.

If you're unsure, call the DHS hotline on 1-800-323-8603.

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