Version-of-record in Deviant Behavior
With the advent of the internet, romance fraud – or instances wherein individuals use fake identities and sham romantic relationships to defraud others – has moved online. Victims of this crime experience harms to their financial, social, and personal well-being. While ...
With the advent of the internet, romance fraud – or instances wherein individuals use fake identities and sham romantic relationships to defraud others – has moved online. Victims of this crime experience harms to their financial, social, and personal well-being. While researchers have made strides in exploring this crime from the perspective of victims, little research has investigated it using data drawn from the persons committing the crime. Moreover, little is known about how these offenders may alter their strategies in response to variations in perceived reward. In this study, we explore these processes utilizing data collected via a series of sequential e-mail exchanges with 94 online romance fraudsters. More specifically, we investigate the deception strategies used by these fraudsters and examine whether and how these strategies shift in response to changes in the prospect of receiving financial reward from a victim. Our results add to current understanding of online romance fraud and have implications for theories of interpersonal deception and rational choice.
Keywords: Online romance fraud, interpersonal deception theory, rational choice theory
Romance fraud—or instances wherein individuals use fake identities and sham romantic relationships to defraud others—has a long history (Buse 2005; Vitola 2018). With the introduction of the internet, this crime moved online (Rege 2009). Victims of online romance fraud not only suffer from financial losses but can also experience harm to their personal relationships and physical, psychological, and emotional well-being (e.g., Cross, Smith, and Richards 2014; Cross 2016; Whitty and Buchanan 2016). Owing to this, researchers have begun devoting attention to the study of online romance fraud (e.g., Budd and Anderson 2011; Cross, Dragiewicz, and Richards 2018; Kopp, Layton, Sillitoe, and Gondal, 2015).
To date, however, the small but growing body of research on online romance fraud has been limited to studies utilizing data drawn from victims’ testimonies of their experiences. This research has focused primarily on identifying typologies of the persons committing the crime—hereafter fraudsters—and their motivations or has explored the various impacts of the crime on victims (e.g., Buchanan and Whitty 2014; Sorell and Whitty 2019; Whitty and Buchanan 2012, 2016; Whitty 2015). Researchers in fields such as information and computer science have also developed tools and algorithms to identify and prevent romance fraud schemes (e.g., Pan et al. 2010; Suarez-Tangil et al. 2019).
What is missing from this research is an investigation of the strategies used by romance fraudsters that draws from data collected from the fraudsters themselves. Additionally, although researchers have long argued that offenders are rational or that they make decisions on the basis of assessments of risk and reward (e.g., Bachman, Paternoster, and Ward 1992; Gibbs 1975; Jacobs 1996, 2010; Nagin and Paternoster 1993; Piquero and Tibbetts 1996) they have yet to explore rational choice among romance fraudsters.
Additionally, while scholars have specified the processes of interpersonal deception (see, e.g., Buller and Burgoon 1996; White and Burgoon 2001, on “Interpersonal Deception Theory” [IDT]), limited attention has been devoted to exploring these processes in online romance fraud. Briefly, interpersonal deception is a reciprocal communicative process wherein interactants use strategic and non-strategic behaviors to elicit desired outcomes from one another (Buller and Burgoon 1996). These deception processes can occur in both face-to-face and computer-mediated interactions (e.g., Carlson et al. 2004; Giordano et al. 2007; Hancock et al. 2007). Research on persons committing non-payment email fraud has found that these offenders will alter their deceptive strategies, specifically their use of urgency cues, over the progression of this offense (see, e.g., Maimon et al., 2019 & 2020). Researchers, however, have yet to explore how romance fraudsters may change their deception strategies in response to victims’ behaviors.
In the present study we address these gaps in empirical understanding of online romance fraud. We investigate the strategies used by these fraudsters and explore whether and how they alter these strategies in responses to varying promises of reward. To do so, we draw data from sequential email exchanges with 94 active romance fraudsters. Our study first contributes to understanding of online romance fraud by examining this crime through analysis of data taken from fraudsters themselves. Additionally, we contribute more broadly to theoretical understanding of the way reward functions in rational choice. Finally, we further explicate the decision-making process of persons committing crimes involving interpersonal deception, such as romance fraud, by integrating IDT within the rational choice framework.
Online romance fraud is one type of online fraud— or instances wherein an individual uses the internet when responding to a “dishonest invitation, request, notification or offer by providing personal information or money [leading] to a financial or non-financial loss” (Cross, Smith, and Richards 2014:1-2). Online romance fraud differs in that it occurs when an individual adopts a fake online identity to gain a victim’s affection and trust. They then use the illusion of a romantic or close relationship to manipulate and/or steal from the victim (Budd and Anderson 2011; Cross, Dragiewicz, and Richards, 2018). These relationships can be established via email or through a variety of websites and apps (e.g., Tinder, E-Harmony, Facebook, Instagram, Google Hangout, etc.) (FTC 2019).
Those committing online romance fraud typically initiate the offense by attempting to simultaneously contact as large a number of potential victims as possible (e.g., Rege, 2009; Whitty, 2015). This strategy is feasible because of the international reach of the internet as well as how it shelters fraudsters from the threat of law enforcement due to the anonymity it provides (e.g., Edwards et al. 2018; Wang and Zhou, 2022; Yen and Jakobsson 2016). While fraudsters attempt to contact as many victims as possible, extant research has noted that they seek out individuals featuring specific characteristics. For instance, fraudsters are more likely to target individuals who are gullible, impulsive, middle-aged, or those with addictive personalities (Whitty 2018). Of particular interest to fraudsters are individuals who post information about their personal lives on dating apps or social media accounts (Wang and Zhou 2018).
Once they have located potential victims, fraudsters will then initiate an interaction with them that unfolds over time (Cross et al., 2018; Kopp et al., 2016; Whitty 2015). Fraudsters use persuasive techniques throughout these interactions to develop relationships with victims and then convince them to hand over money. These techniques include fraudsters taking roles as authorities, stoking victims’ adherence to social norms (e.g., helping others in need), and imbuing victims with feelings of urgency. They also indirectly influence victims through the visceral feelings stemming from their artificial relationships. Fraudsters will then adjust their techniques in response to victims’ reactions to their initial and subsequent persuasive strategies (Whitty 2013). Through these techniques and others, romance fraudsters obtain financial rewards by having victims send them money directly, by having them make advance payments for promised outcomes, or by drawing them into schemes wherein they unwittingly launder money by transferring funds or goods (Galdo, Tate, and Feldman 2018).
In the rational choice framework, offenders are considered rational actors in that they base their crime-related decisions on assessments of risk and reward (Clarke and Cornish 1985). As perceived risks increase, they are less likely to pursue contemplated crimes (e.g., Nagin 1998; Paternoster 1987); as perceived rewards inflate, they are more likely to undertake them (e.g., Baumer and Gustafson, 2007; Goldstein 1985; Cressey 1953; Loughran et al. 2016).
Research using this framework demonstrates offenders’ behaviors are influenced by their perceptions of risk and reward. For instance, offenders will sometimes reduce how often or where and when they offend or alter their offending in other ways in response to risk (Gibbs 1975; Jacobs and Cherbonneau 2014). Likewise, offenders will undertake offense opportunities seen as more rewarding than others (e.g., Nagin and Paternoster 1993; Thomas, Loughran, and Hamilton 2020). Additionally, they may also take steps, such as careful target selection, to maximize the perceived rewards from an offense (e.g., Jacobs 2010).
Research suggests these processes are influenced by the nature of interactions between perpetrators and victims. For instance, the initial stages of armed robbery are guided by an interplay between robbers’ and victims’ behavior. Sometimes robbers adopt a “normal appearance” when approaching victims by asking for the time of day or to buy drugs. If victims fall for these ruses, robbers calmly approach them. However, if victims become suspicious, robbers either abandon the offense or violently rush them (Wright and Decker 1997: 98). Studies of illicit drug sellers and potential buyers show a similar interplay. Drug sellers may avoid selling to potential customers who behave suspiciously during transactions (e.g., Johnson and Natarajan 1995). Sellers may also overcharge or otherwise defraud customers who demonstrate less drug knowledge (i.e., going prices, appropriate terminology) to increase profits (e.g., Jacques, Allen, and Wright 2014).
As mentioned previously, victims’ accounts describe how romance fraudsters will engage in different tactics over the course of the offense (Whitty 2013). Research also argues that fraudsters alter their behavior due to raises in their perceptions of risk (Wang et al. 2021). If viewed through the lens of rational choice, this research suggests that online romance fraud consists of a reciprocal interaction between fraudster and victim. Moreover, in this interaction, fraudsters’ perceptions of the risks of being identified as predatory by victims and others change in response to the behavior of potential victims. As these perceptions of risk rise, fraudsters alter their behavior. Although it has been noted that romance fraudsters are motivated by reward (e.g., Buchanan and Whitty 2014), it is unclear whether they alter their tactics in response to fluctuations in it in the same way they do in response to risk. While the rational choice framework can help explain why romance fraudsters’ decisions and behaviors change in response to reward, it offers little conceptual guidance for understanding the interactive processes occurring between them and victims that may influence these changes. To guide our exploration of these processes, we draw from Interpersonal Deception Theory.
Stemming from communication studies, IDT explains interactions between persons intent on deception (i.e., “deceivers”) and those they want to deceive (i.e., “receivers”) (Buller and Burgoon 1996). IDT argues that a key feature of these interactive contexts is their dynamic nature. That is, deceivers and receivers are active participants and “adjust to one another’s feedback” (206), thereby altering the progression of their interaction. When attempting to deceive others, deceivers may have instrumental (e.g., acquiring resources, etc.), relational (e.g., initiating or maintaining relationships, etc.), or identity (e.g., avoiding embarrassment, etc.) goals. Receivers may also be motivated by various goals, but it is assumed they are always trying to avoid deception. To achieve their respective goals, both parties use strategic and non-strategic behaviors. Strategic behaviors are intentional actions, whereas non-strategic behaviors are unintentional. Because these situations consist of reciprocal exchanges, the strategies used by a deceiver and a receiver will change over the course of the deception event. Moreover, they can be aimed at achieving multiple goals simultaneously (Buller and Burgoon 1996).
Interactions involving deception can be shaped by several factors. First, when people presume that other interactants are credible, they are less likely to assess the behavior of these others for signs of deceit and vice versa. The degree of credibility one lends to another can stem from a prior relationship (Buller and Burgoon 1996) or from a commonly held tendency to enter all interactions assuming others are trustworthy (e.g., Buller, Hunsaker, and Aitken 1995; Kalbfleisch 1992). Regardless of whether interactants enter an interaction with a pre-existing relationship or develop one over the course of it, as the relationship grows in strength—or at least the stronger it is perceived to be—the more likely receivers will fail to recognize or seek out signs of deception. Likewise, the more receivers attribute positive emotions to the relationship, the more likely they will trust deceivers (Buller and Burgoon 1996).
IDT has only recently been applied to examinations of criminal behavior and to cybercrime more specifically. In a study of online non-payment fraud, Maimon and colleagues (2019) found that the deception strategies of the fraudsters engaged in this crime were contingent on the behavior of their targets. They found that the fraudsters were more likely to continue using similar strategies—here cues of urgency—when targets reacted without suspicion. In a separate study using the same sample, Maimon and colleagues (2020) found that these fraudsters were more likely to continue using politeness, sometimes in conjunction with cues of urgency, when targets were deemed suitable. This work highlights that the assertions of IDT regarding deceivers’ use of strategic behaviors apply to online fraudsters. Questions remain, however, as to whether these assertions apply to persons committing online romance fraud and, moreover, if they can explain the decision-making of these fraudsters from a rational choice perspective.
If considered together, the extant research described previously suggests that IDT can be used to explain the rationality of persons intent on initiating online romance fraud. Romance fraud can be conceptualized as an interpersonal deception event occurring between a fraudster and a victim. Over the course of these events potential victims will become more or less suspicious of fraudsters’ motives in response to the ways in which fraudsters behave. As they become less suspicious, and thus more likely to provide fraudsters with some type of financial returns, this raises fraudsters’ perceptions of the potential rewards of the crime. Contrarily, as potential victims become more suspicious, this lowers fraudsters’ perceived rewards. Fraudsters engage in behaviors, such as acting as authority figures or building relationships with potential victims, to attenuate victims’ suspicions and thus raise the chances of reward. Thus, prior research suggests that as fraudsters’ perceptions of reward fluctuate due to victims’ behavior, they will alter their own behaviors in response.
In the current study, we examine these processes. More specifically, we explore whether and how online romance fraudsters may alter their behavior in response to changes in the likelihood of reward. We suspect that upon receiving clear signs of rewarding cues from victims, this will increase fraudsters’ perceptions of reward. In other words, this may increase their views that victims are ready to send rewards and comply with future financial requests. Accordingly, fraudsters may then modify their behaviors as a means to increase the chances that victims will do so. To perform this examination, we conduct a thematic content analysis of a series of email exchanges with a group of online romance fraudsters.
Our study is informed by data collected from stop-scammers.com. Stop-scammers.com is a website where victims of romance scams report the individuals who have defrauded them—hereafter referred to as fraudsters. These reports include the fraudster's claimed age, gender, email address, phone number, social media information, and a brief description of each scam. The website only includes information for scammers who claim to be female. Each report undergoes a vetting process requiring supportive documentation before it is posted to the website (see Wang et al., 2021 for a description). To collect data, we deployed a Python scraper to gather the email addresses of all the fraudsters reported to this site in 2020.1 We did not scrape for demographic information.
After obtaining the email addresses, we employed an experimental design wherein we randomly assigned 500 of them into three groups. In early 2021 we sent email messages posing as a potential victim to the fraudsters in each group using a program developed in Python. Of these initial 500 emails, 100 were sent to inactive email addresses. Our final sample size (n = 94) consists of all the fraudsters who replied to this first email, with 33 in group 1, 31 in group 2 and 30 in group 3.
We followed the fraudsters’ responses to our first email with a series of standardized email exchanges. The schedule and content of our messages are shown in table 1. These emails only differed by experimental group and did not differ due to the content or length of the fraudsters’ replies. Email 2 (sent to all 3 groups) was intended to make the fraudsters aware that the victim possessed a gift card (i.e., a potential reward) and, moreover, that “he” could be potentially persuaded as to what to do with it. We then began varying the degrees of potential reward in email 3. For group 1, the degree of potential reward was slightly raised by asking for their opinion on what to do with the aforementioned gift card. For groups 2 and 3, we significantly raised the degree of reward presented to the fraudsters by indicating that we—or the victim—wanted to give them the gift card.
Table 1. Email Protocol
Group 1: Promised nothing
Group 2: Promised something but receives nothing
Group 3: Promised something and receive something
Hi. I’m John. I saw your profile on <INSERT NAME OF FIRST PLATFORM LISTED ON WEBPAGE>. I don’t like using platforms to talk, so searched for an email. I’m quite the internet stalker! Are you the same person on that platform? Sorry if not (😬). A little about me: I’m 28 and live in Chicago. I work for Delta so travel a lot, domestic and international, so like to meet people in new places. Hopefully the pandemic will be over soon, so things go back to normal! If you’re single and ready to mingle (😂), write me back!
I’m so excited! My birthday is coming up and my parents just gave me a $250 Amazon gift card!!!!!!! The only problem is I don’t know what to spend it on!
I’ve been thinking hard about what to do with that Amazon money. I really need new cookware. What do you think?
I’ve been thinking hard about what to do with that Amazon money. I really need new cookware. But I’m a big believer in karma, so I’d like to give you some of it. What do you think?
Email 4 +
I’m sending you an e-card! Please confirm you get it? I don’t know why, but they always go into my junkmail.
I’m sending you an e-card with money for Amazon! Please confirm you get it? I don’t know why, but they always go into my junkmail.
Shortly after sending Message 4, send a hallmark e-card (or whatever) with the message:
Been thinking of you and so sending you this special message! I hope it makes you happy!”
Shortly after sending Message 4, send an Amazon e-card with $1/$5 (if we can buy the gift cards) and the message:
Been thinking of you and so sending you this special message! I hope it makes you happy! (Treatment 2)
Email 4 consisted of two parts for each group. First, each group received a message. Then each group received a varying level of reward. Group 1 received a message that did not indicate a rise in the likelihood of receiving financial reward (“I’m sending you an e-card!”). They then received a Hallmark e-card but no money. Groups 2 and 3 received a message that did indicate a rise the likelihood of receiving financial reward (“I’m sending you an e-card with money for Amazon!”). Group 2 then received nothing. Group 3 received $1.00.
The software program NVivo was used throughout our analysis to help organize our thematic categories. During the first stage of our analysis, we searched the data for patterns within and across the emails exchanged with the fraudsters. We then sorted email statements and replies into general categories (e.g., “needs,” “relationships,” etc.) before organizing these categories into more specific subcategories (e.g., “bills,” “medical needs,” etc.). Over the course of this process, conceptually like themes were merged into broader thematic categories. The entirety of this process was initially conducted by the first author and then, to ensure reliability, was independently repeated by the second author. No differences existed between these two waves of analysis. As such, the results represent the themes identified in this process.
Our analysis revealed that the fraudsters use seven conceptually distinct strategies when interacting with a victim. First, they take subtle and overt steps to shape the presentation of their personal identities. They also craft their responses in such a way that they could shape the victim’s identity or his own self-identification. Next, their responses suggested a relationship with the victim. Fourth, the fraudsters ask for, demand, or accept money. The fraudsters’ fifth and sixth strategies involved asking for identifying information from the victim or to talk or chat with him further via another platform. Finally, the fraudsters’ responses also contained interactional facilitators, or innocuous text encouraging the victim to continue the exchange. It is important to note that the fraudsters’ communications were multi-faceted in that they often consisted of one or more of these domains acting in concert. In what follows, we describe these strategies and how they changed over the course of their email exchanges.
All of the fraudsters’ presented themselves as non-threatening persons in one or more ways in our initial exchanges with them. Put differently, each of the fraudsters took effort to present him or herself as someone who, at least ostensibly, was a “real” person and was not out to victimize our victim in some way. They first did so by sharing personal information such as their names, ages, marital and familial statuses, where they lived, and in a few cases, photographs of “themselves.” Mary’s initial response exemplified this strategy. “I am Mary,” she stated, “but you can call me Bae for short 30 years old single with no kids and never been married before…I was born and raised in the USA Texas (city in Houston).”2 A few also shared their personal qualities. Angela noted that she was a “habitual early bird” and was “pretty at heart,” while Janet “believe[d] in open communication, standing in our truth, being honest, and having integrity.”
The fraudsters also presented themselves as persons looking for relationships. Monica claimed she was “ready for a new love relationship.” Kate wrote she wanted to “have a serious relationship with a serious man.” While Tina wanted a “relationship that will lead to marriage.” These fraudsters and others would then sometimes bolster this image by stating what qualities they were looking for in a relationship. Sometimes this was simple, as when Mary Lloyd claimed she was looking for “true love.” In other instances, the fraudsters were more verbose:
I am looking for a man that will be able to listen to me, communicate his feelings to me, make me laugh, hold and comfort me in need, stand by my side, respect me, passionate lover in every way, support me in every way, love me and only me, make me smile, protect me when needed, romantic time to time, constantly reactive, and treat me right. (Janet)
Many of the fraudsters also shaped their identities by presenting themselves as persons interested in our victim. Linda, for example, stated, “I really wanna know you more better dear.” Sandy spoke likewise, stating “i will like to know you more okay we just meet we have to get to know more about each other.” Others were less inquisitive and instead asked more general questions about our victim’s well-being such as “how has been your day?” (Sara).
It was far less common for the fraudsters to refer to their personal identities following the introduction of a possible reward (i.e., when the Amazon card was mentioned in email 2). The fraudsters that did continue this strategy after email 2 did so by continuing to present themselves as the types of persons interested in a relationship. Here, however, they slightly altered this presentation of self by claiming that they were interested in “helping” the victim spend the money, a strategy unused by any of the fraudsters prior to this point in the email exchanges.
For some, like Linder, this involved simple offers of help. “Scratch the amazon gifts card with the full receipt and send it here to my email address and I will help you with it,” she stated. Others instead offered to “redeem it [the Amazon card] into cash” (Chloe), often for a small fee. Linda made such an offer. “You can send me the Amazon card,” she wrote, “then I will try and send it out here and send you the money but I’m only going to be sending you 200$ and I will take 50$.” Two offered to “buy something” for the victim, provided he gave the card information to them.
Finally, in responding to emails 3 and 4, wherein the potential for reward was again raised, it was rare for the fraudsters to use the strategy of presenting their personal identity. Those that did so positioned themselves as “non-scammers” in a more direct way by symbolically distancing themselves from persons committing romance fraud or, in their words, “scammers.” Elizabeth did so by stressing her wariness that our victim was, in fact, out to defraud her. “If you are a scammer or if you are here for my nudes,” she said, “don’t try talking to me anymore because I heated and detest these two things. Daniela echoed this, “If you are a real person not imposter (African Nigerians) or scammers (soldiers, conman, fraudstar) then we can mingle.” After stating “No online scammers have ever succeeded with me!!!!” she continued by outright claiming “I’m not an online scammers after any man’s money.”
Throughout these different and often overlapping forms of communication, the fraudsters presented themselves as “real” people. If viewed through an interactionist lens, in doing so they shaped how our victim would view them throughout the interaction (see Goffman 1959). By painting a picture of themselves as “real” people looking for a relationship or wanting to help our “victim,” they also symbolically distanced themselves from how they did not want our victim to see them: as potential fraudsters. If viewed through the perspective of IDT, doing so could also contribute to our victim seeing them as more credible by increasing the amount of knowledge he had of them (Buller and Burgoon 1996).
Each one of the fraudsters also included language in their email responses to the victim that could subtly alter the victim’s self-view. They did so in two primary ways. In the first, they used flattering language. For instance, Bella stated she had “a feeling that” the victim was “an honest person and courageous.” Grace and Monica referred to him as “handsome.” Following the introduction of money, Linda (group 3) stated, “I guess you’re a responsible man lol.” And after being promised that they would receive an e-card, several said “You are so sweet” (Jennifer, Tabitha, Linda [group 1], Grace). With such flattery, the fraudsters may have been attempting to encourage the victim to see himself as attractive or as possessing other desirable traits. The high emotional response initiated by such flattery has been noted in other research as having the potential to override a victim’s ability to objectively assess risk (Cialdini 1984; Lea et.al 2009). Here, then, it is possible that such language could then override a potential fraud victim’s ability to objectively assess the risks of sharing information or otherwise continuing to interact with a fraudster.
The second and more common way the fraudsters focused on the victim’s identity was by giving him decisive power. More specifically, their statements were worded such that they could be interpreted by the victim to mean that he had the discretion to decide the direction of the interaction. For example, when asking for identifying information—a tactic we describe shortly—the fraudsters would do so without using imperative statements. They would instead request this information with terms such as “can” or “maybe.” Most would simply ask “can you send me some pics of you?” (Rachael). Some, like Stantel, were less imperative. “I guess we can share pictures,” she wrote, “if you don’t mine then or what do you think about that…”
The fraudsters wrote similarly after being made aware of the victim’s money in email 2 and the subsequent emails wherein the potential of reward was raised. Rather than directing the victim to send them money they would instruct him to spend it as he saw fit. “Well, you can use it to buy things for you,” Lailatul wrote. Some, like Elizabeth, followed these statements with comments “suggesting” the victim send them the money:
Whatever pleases you it’s your money and you can do whatever you want with it okay or Perhaps you can cash it out and buy your cookware and also buy another card with the rest of the money and send to me as a sign of your real love to me
Others passively gave permission to the victim to send them money. Rebecca was one of these. “Yes, am okay with that,” she wrote, “If you will give me it it’s your choice.”
Although subtle, linguistic choices such as these are important because their use in communication can indicate to a recipient that he or she has the decisive power to carry out or follow through with a suggested action. This can then alter how the recipient sees his or her own identity in relation to that of the person or persons with whom they are interacting (see Weinstein and Deutschberger 1963 on ‘altercasting’). The sense of power or status this can lend may then cause a recipient to see the other interactant as less threatening (Kemper and Collins 1990; Scherer 1984). In the situational context of romance fraud, fraudsters may strategically attempt to affect potential victims’ perceptions of their own power because this may cause the victims to discount the level of risk or threat they would otherwise attribute to the fraudsters during their interaction. If, in the terms of rational choice, this lowers the potential victim’s perceptions of risk, the victim may be more likely to continue facilitating the offense—by continuing to interact with the fraudster—rather than cutting it short.
Although less common than their attempts to shape their own identities or that of the victim, the fraudsters also used language aimed at shaping the victim’s perception of their “relationship.” These strategies only took place following our initial email and the two following wherein the fraudsters were made aware of the victim’s money and that he wanted either their opinion on what to do with it or wanted to give some to them. Even then, however, this strategy was only used by a handful of fraudsters.
For some of the fraudsters, this strategy entailed using statements hinting at a potential future relationship. Janet stated, “Am gonna be happy to meet you in person very soon and see how things go from there…we can be the perfect match.” Lailatul echoed this, commenting, “I will love to chat you more and know more about each other and see where it will lead us to.” Linda spoke likewise, also suggesting that chatting could lead to a relationship. “I would love to chat with you,” she wrote. “Kindly message me on hangout and see if things work out for us.” Others indicated a pre-existing relationship with the victim. For instance, referencing the victim’s birthday, Sara wrote, “we make food for you and your friends…I’ll come over and celebrate that together.” While Elizabeth wrote, “know that baby I am always here for you.”
The fraudsters also indicated a relationship with the victim by peppering their exchanges with terms of endearment or “pet names.” “Dear” was by far the most commonly used of these terms but the fraudsters also used others such as “honey” (Sandy), “babe” (Gifty), “my love” (Stantel), and “baby” (Nora). On their face the use of these terms may seem meaningless or as mere conversational filler. It is important to note, however, that the use of “pet names” are key ways that individuals suggest affection or social closeness with others (see Drake 1957; Ezebube, Chukwuneke, and Onuagha, 2020). Hence, fraudsters’ use of pet names could be interpreted by victims as indicative of the presence of a relationship.
In suggesting a future or current relationship, fraudsters may shape how potential victims views their interaction or define the situation with a fraudster. That is, if a potential victim begins to view his or her relationship with a fraudster as being meaningful or possibly developing into this, he or she may interact differently with the fraudster. As Buller and Burgoon (1996) argue, trust flows from intimacy. Therefore, while a potential victim may be wary and distrustful of a fraudster viewed as a stranger, he or she may act contrarily with a fraudster viewed relationally closer. And this, in turn, may make it easier for a fraudster to defraud the victim in some way.
In addition to using strategies centered on shaping the fraudsters’ identities, that of the victim, and the victim’s view of the relationship, the fraudsters also employed several strategies focused on encouraging the victim to take different types of action. Key among these was urging the victim to send them money. Notably, none of the fraudsters did so when responding to the first email or following email 3 wherein they were asked their opinion on what to do with the money. Following email 2 (wherein money was introduced) and email 3 (wherein they were told the victim wanted to give them some of the money), however, many of the fraudsters used imperative language ordering the victim to provide them the gift card. These fraudsters would make statements such as “Send the card to my DM” (Jeana) or “Send me the picture of your card” (Brenda). As mentioned previously, they also did so using softer language giving our “victim” power to decide whether to send them money such as “I’ll be glad if you can give that to me” (Angela).
Some justified these imperative or passive statements with their financial needs. Aminatu wrote, “I think I will need one of it to update my phone to be able to chat here on email whenever we want.” Stella was “very happy to use it for some stuffs.” And Sara stated, “get me 50 out of the Amazon gift card so I could be a gas [gas tank emoji] and drive down to you.” Finally, after being told they would receive the “e-card with money for Amazon,” in email 4, some of the fraudsters’ passively accepted the money. It was common for them to simply state “Okay” (Angelina). Some of them added comments or questions to this such as they were “waiting” (Mary) or “how are you sending it?” (Aminatu).
When asking for, demanding, or accepting the money, it was just as common for the fraudsters to do so alongside the other conceptual domains comprising their communications, a point we have highlighted previously. More specifically, in addition to the examples we have already discussed of the fraudsters’ efforts to shape their own identities and those of their victims while discussing money, they also talked about money simultaneously with their relationship with the victim and with the two domains to which we now turn: requests for identifying information or to talk or chat.
After the first and second emails, it was common for many of the fraudsters to urge the victim to send them identifying information. As noted previously, for many this involved demands or requests for photographs. Others wanted more information, such as the victim’s age, profession, marital status, familial status, phone number, and place of residence. Sometimes they outright requested this information. Naya wrote, “Where are you from and what is your profession?” As with their requests for photos the fraudsters embedded these requests in comments seemingly directed at shaping their identities, the victim’s identity, or their relationship. For instance, Lailatul responded to email 2 like this: “Well you can use it to buy things for you…What is your name?” After email 2, once the level of potential reward was raised, however, it was rare for the fraudsters to ask for this kind of information.
Such information may be important to fraudsters because it could be used to steal the identities of victims and then defraud them. But it could also be a more indirect strategy at aimed at furthering fraud. That is, the fraudsters could take such information and use it to liken their presented identities to those of their potential victims. Doing so can increase victims’ feelings of connection with a fraudster. Such emotions can then “viscerally influence” (Loewenstein 1996) victims’ decision-making such that they are less able to effectively weigh potential risks (see also, Whitty 2013). This, in turn, may then facilitate a fraudster’s ability to defraud the victim.
A third action the fraudsters encouraged the victim to take was to talk or chat with them via a separate platform, such as WhatsApp or Google Hangouts, or to do so by text message or phone call. They did so with statements or questions such as, “Can we chat on Google Hangouts now?” (Grace) and “Do you do Hangout or send me your text number” (Cassandra). Sometimes they further attempted to persuade the victim to do so with the pretense that it would facilitate his abilities to “chat better” (Annabelle, Rita) or “talk better” (Kate, Joyce) and “take time to know each other better” (Stella). Like their attempts to gain identifying information from the victim, this strategy was primarily used after the emails 1 and 2 and was rarely used after.
Finally, throughout their responses to all the emails, all the fraudsters made statements or posed questions at one time or another urging the victim to continue corresponding with them or to respond faster. Most would ask questions such as “How are you doing today?” (Mary) or “Hello John are you here with me now?” (Grace). Following the promise of sending them money or of their receipt of one dollar, they would also pose questions such as “Am waiting. Let me give it try. You there?” (Lizzy) and “Why only 1 dollar?” (Ashley). While on their face these comments and questions may seem innocuous or even genuine, given that the fraudsters used them following the lack of timely response to their emails it is likely that they were intended to make the victim aware they were awaiting a response.
The aim of this article was to examine the strategies used by online romance fraudsters and to explore if and how they alter these strategies in response to changes in the chances of receiving rewards from potential victims. Our analysis suggests that the online romance fraudsters examined in our study use seven conceptually distinct deception strategies when attempting to gain victims’ trust and defraud them: the presentation of their own identities; manipulations of victims’ identities; manipulations of their “relationships” with victims, the asking for, demanding, or accepting of money; requesting identifying information from victims; requesting to talk or chat with victims on other platforms; and attempts to encourage victims to continue interacting with them.
Our results are important for several reasons. First, they add to current understanding of online romance fraud. As noted previously, prior work on this offense, drawing primarily from victims’ accounts, has highlighted its prevalence (Whitty and Buchanan 2012), its stages (Whitty 2015), its unique features (Rege, 2009; Edwards et al., 2018), fraudsters’ rational selections of specific victims (Whitty, 2018), impacts on victims (Buchanan and Whitty 2014; Whitty and Buchanan 2016), and the techniques used by fraudsters (Whitty 2013). To our knowledge, our study is the first to examine online romance fraud through analysis of data collected from fraudsters themselves. Moreover, in addition to building on this prior research by further specifying some of the techniques used by fraudsters, we also highlight how fraudsters are responsive to fluctuations in perceived reward. In addition, fraudsters’ willingness to conversate with “the victim” also demonstrate that victims who appear amenable to persuasion and willing to give out money have higher likelihood of being swindled or manipulated by different social engineering techniques used by fraudsters. Thus, like persons involved in other types of offenses (see, e.g., Cornish and Clarke 2014), online romance fraudsters are rational actors. That is, online romance fraudsters guide their decisions by weighing risks and rewards.
These results also add to the rational choice perspective more broadly by further explicating the role of reward in decision-making. Piliavan and colleagues (1986) noted some time ago that studies of rational choice to that point had largely failed to include measures of reward. Since that time, however, researchers have addressed this shortcoming and have begun to examine the role of reward in rational choice. For instance, we now know that the impact of rewards on decision-making varies across and within individuals over time (McCarthy 2002; Paternoster and Pogarsky 2009). Researchers have also argued that the presence of co-offenders can influence one’s perceptions of reward (McGloin and Thomas 2016), that expectations of reward influence whether one will continue an offense (Pezzin 1995), and that perceptions of reward might be the most important element driving decision-making (Matsueda, Kreager, and Huizinga, 2006). And, as mentioned previously, offenders will also take steps to increase the chances of receiving a reward (e.g., Wright and Decker 1997). Our study contributes to this body of literature by suggesting that offenders—here romance fraudsters—will alter their behaviors in response to changes in the likelihood of receiving a reward that occur over the course of an offense as a means to further increase the chances they will receive this reward. Thus, like assessments of risk, the weighing of reward is a dynamic process consisting of an interplay between offenders’ perceptions of reward and their behaviors.
Our study also furthers understanding of rational choice as it occurs among offenders involved in interpersonal crimes by demonstrating how IDT can be situated within this perspective. Recall that IDT proposes that interpersonal deception situations consist of reciprocal interaction between a deceiver and a receiver wherein each party uses strategic behaviors to achieve their desired ends (i.e., deceiving and avoiding deception, respectively) (Buller and Burgoon 1996). In short, the arguments of IDT emphasize that neither party in an interaction is a static player. Rather, each is dynamic, each can play an important role in the outcome of the interaction and, moreover, this outcome is sometimes the result of a multistep process of negotiation. Of course, research examining rational choice and related theoretical frameworks (e.g., deterrence) have long recognized that victims’ decisions can influence the character of offenders’ decisions (e.g., Beauregard and Leclerc 2007; Copes and Tewksbury 2011; Jacobs and Cherbonneau 2018). For instance, it has noted that victims’ routine activities (Beauregard, Rossmo, and Proulx 2007) or their implementation of self-protection measures (Jacobs and Cherbonneau 2014; van Dijk 1994) can shape whether and how offenders carry out their crimes. Our findings illustrate that fraudsters will alter or altogether change their behavior due to fluctuations in potential reward (i.e., victim’s behavior) and, moreover, that this can occur multiple times throughout an interaction. By situating our findings in IDT and rational choice, we add to extant literature on rational choice by highlighting that not only can victims’ actions influence the decision-making of offenders but also that this can be a dynamic, reciprocal process occurring over time.
Prior research on online romance fraud has noted that a key strategy used by romance fraudsters is to manipulate victims’ perceptions of a relationship with them (Whitty 2013). We find that the fraudsters in our sample are no different. Throughout their interactions with the victim many of the fraudsters took measures to give the impression of a relationship with him. The propositions of IDT provide an explanation for this. Recall that IDT posits that receivers may have a more difficult time detecting deception from others with whom they have relationships. This stems from “positivity and truth biases” associated with familiar relationships that cause receivers to “overlook, discount, or misinterpret evidence of deceit” (Buller and Burgoon 1996, p. 215). Hence, fraudsters may seek to give the impression of a relationship to victims in order to limit their abilities to detect deceit.
Furthermore, this notion adds to understanding of rational choice by highlighting that rational actors—such as romance fraudsters—may take steps to indirectly influence the risks and rewards associated with contemplated actions. When a fraudster uses a deceptive tactic on a potential victim, this can directly influence an increase in reward (if the deceit is successful) or an increase in risk (if the deceit is unsuccessful). Drawing from the arguments of IDT previously described, fraudsters’ attempts to influence victims’ views of their relationship may moderate the relationship between the deceptive tactics and risk and reward by altering victims’ abilities to detect deception. Thus, situating IDT in rational choice illustrates how the actors’ efforts to manipulate perceived risks and rewards include not only direct measures but those aimed at indirectly impacting these perceptions.
That the fraudsters attempted to manipulate the victim’s sense of their relationship can also be explained using prospect theory, a decision-making theory stemming from behavioral economics. Briefly, rational choice and prospect theory argue that people that are risk averse when it comes to obtaining potential gains but are risk seeking in reference to potential losses (Rabin 1999; Tversky and Kahneman 1992). Additionally, prospect theory argues that one’s decision-making is reference dependent (Kahneman and Tversky 2013). That is, actors’ decisions are anchored in whether they see actions as resulting in potential losses or gains. Actors are more likely to take risky actions if they are viewed as likely to prevent losses; whereas they are less likely to take the same actions if they are viewed as likely to net gains that otherwise would not be had (Pogarsky, Roche, and Pickett, 2018).
If viewed from this perspective, romance fraudsters’ attempts to develop a “relationship” with victims can be thought of as a mechanism for altering victims’ reference points. Consider a fraudster asking for money from a victim with whom the fraudster has imbued the impression of an existing relationship. When contemplating whether to give the fraudster this money, the victim may do so from a reference point wherein they see failure to take this risky action as potentially resulting in the loss of the relationship and the visceral feelings it gives them (Whitty 2013). Because people are risk seeking when it comes to losses, they may therefore be more likely to give the fraudster the money as a means to avoid this loss. Contrarily, if victims do not see themselves as having a relationship with the fraudster, then they may view the action as something that could lead to a relationship or, in other words, a gain. Because people are risk averse in regard to gains requiring action to obtain, they may be less likely to give the fraudster the money.
As with all research, our study has several limitations. First, we recognize that it is possible that two or more of the email addresses in our sample may be controlled by the same individual. Nevertheless, it is unlikely that this would impact our findings because the focus of our study was to identify the strategies used by online romance fraudsters. Therefore, an individual being represented more than once would simply provide more opportunity to examine the strategies used by that respective fraudster. Second, despite the efforts of the moderators of stop-scammers.com, it is possible that some of the individuals on the website have been misidentified as fraudsters. Therefore, it is possible that one or more of the individuals in our sample were persons uninvolved with the perpetration of online romance fraud. If this is the case, and these persons responded to each of our emails, it is possible that their responses could be included in our analysis. Our analysis, however, did not reveal any deviant cases. This suggests that the sample is comprised of all fraudsters.
Third, the validity of our results may be similarly contaminated if the romance fraudsters we contacted viewed our initial emails as suspicious or unusual and, as a result, did not respond as they typically would when conducting an email fraud. Hence, it is possible in some cases we were unable to observe natural responses from fraudsters. Fourth, the generalizability of our results is unknown. Our results may only apply to the fraudsters sampled in the study and thus may not apply to fraudsters who use male personas, those running other types of romance scams (e.g., crypto-romance frauds), or those operating on different websites or apps. It is possible other types of online romance fraudsters employ different strategies to manipulate victims or may respond to changes in rewards differently. Nevertheless, despite these limitations, our study adds nuance to understanding of the strategies used by online romance fraudsters and makes strides in further specifying some of the factors—here financial reward—that shape the behaviors of these offenders. In doing so, it contributes to understanding rational choice as it relates to online romance fraud and to the role of reward in this theoretical framework more broadly.
The authors report there are no competing interests to declare.
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