'Distort, Extort, Deceive and Exploit: Exploring the Inner Workings of a Romance Fraud' by Elisabeth Carter in (2021) 61(2) The British Journal of Criminology 283–302 comments
Romance fraud is a crime where the fraudster must strike a balance between the romantic and financial aspects of the communication for their criminal intent to remain hidden. This discourse analytic research examines the setup of information early in the interaction, the use of visceral language and isolation as key tactics of exploitation enabling the distortion of reality and manipulation of power. With demands shrouded in a health narrative, and secrecy urged for the preservation of the relationship and the victim’s happiness, this research reveals how the language of this financially and emotionally devastating crime involves grooming strategies akin to coercive control and domestic violence and abuse and exposes the inaccuracies of popular narratives surrounding victims and in awareness-raising and crime prevention strategies.
Frauds are a societal and academic concern, a police and law enforcement strategic priority (National Audit Office 2017), and are pervasive, exploitative and psychologically and financially traumatic to victims. This work explores romance fraud, and the linguistic balancing act involved in maintaining a romantic façade whilst advancing the concealed goal of extorting money and mitigating talk potentially incompatible with romance, such as financial matters, urgency and secrecy. Challenging existing stereotypes of fraud victims as stupid, ignorant or greedy (Button et al. 2009a; Cross 2015), this research examines how power and reality are distorted by the fraudster, and the impact this has on the victim’s self-protection from the fraudster’s criminal intent. It argues that romance fraud is a type of online grooming and abuse through examining the communication along three themes: the ‘set-up and drip feed’, where the fraudster sets up information early in the communication, which is then relied on to validate later behaviours and requests; ‘visceral responses’, where the fraudster uses reactions to situations to invoke a protective response from the victim, and ‘isolating the victim’, where the fraudster uses language to detach the victim from the security and reality of their support network.
In a structured performance reminiscent of the stages of online grooming (Whittle et al. 2013), romance fraudsters obtain access to vulnerable people online under the guise of seeking a relationship. Romance frauds are typically a long-term scheme, reliant as they are on the trust borne from the development of a relationship through which to exploit their target. The unsuspecting participant is also likely to experience a degradation in decision-making capabilities simply due to their extended exposure to it (Baumeister et al. 2008). For a successful romance fraud to be complete, the fraudster needs to create the appearance of a romantic prospect with whom a genuine, meaningful relationship is developing and surreptitiously segue into types of talk likely to be at odds with this romantic scenario. Requests for money are the sole, yet hidden, function of an interaction where romance is collectively the façade of, rationale for and the conduit through which the fraud is performed and need careful management as monetary demands are likely to cause alarm.
As described by Cross et al. (2018) and Irvin-Erickson and Ricks (2019), there remains very little academic exploration of romance fraud. Research in this area concentrates on fraud more broadly, its psychological impact or on victims’ reports of their experiences. It affects people with vulnerabilities surrounding social isolation and loneliness (Lawson and Leck 2006; Lichtenberg et al. 2013), bereavement and job loss (NAO 2017). The inner workings of the way fraudsters ply their trade remains underexplored despite its distinctively multifaceted harm, which includes relationship loss, financial loss and emotional and sexual abuse described as akin to rape (Whitty and Buchanan 2016). While there is significant public-facing material on how to identify fraudulent activity and protect oneself from becoming a victim of fraud, there is limited evidence through which to create effective barriers to victimhood and remediate harm (Irvin-Erickson and Ricks 2019). This paper offers empirical contributions to understandings of the fraudster’s actions in an area dominated by research that draws on the victim’s experience.