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Neutralizations, Altercasting, and Online Romance Fraud Victimizations

Published onJul 04, 2023
Neutralizations, Altercasting, and Online Romance Fraud Victimizations


In the present study we draw from data collected from 87 online romance fraudsters to explore whether and how offenders may suggest neutralizations to victims as a means to facilitate their crimes. Through thematic analysis of a series of emails exchanged with each fraudster we find that they encourage victims to neutralize their misgivings about sending them money in four overlapping ways. First, fraudsters appeal to vicarious necessity or implore victims to consider the fraudsters’ needs. They also appeal to an intimate relationship or suggest victims view their relationship as intimate in nature. Third, they deny susceptibility or subtly persuade victims to see themselves as holding more power in the interaction. Finally, fraudsters appeal to religious identity or encourage victims to consider their own religious identities. Our study contributes to understanding of neutralizations by explicating how neutralizations can be used by offenders as tools to assist their offending. It also adds to knowledge of the relationship between neutralizations and altercasting. In addition, we expand prior work illustrating the grooming process of online romance fraud and other crimes. We discuss implications for victim-blaming as it occurs among online romance fraud victims.

Neutralizations, Altercasting, and Online Romance Fraud Victimizations


Neutralizations are among the most studied theoretical concepts in criminology (Maruna and Copes 2005). Initially observed among juvenile delinquents (Sykes and Matza 1957), researchers have since explored neutralizations as they are used by juveniles and adults involved with a range of actions, criminal and otherwise (e.g., Agnew 1994; Bohner et al. 1998; Burkey and Bensel 2015; Copes 2003; Holt and Copes 2010). The lion’s share of this work examines how actors use neutralizations to assuage actual or anticipated guilt stemming from actions they see as immoral or deviant and thereby maintain positive self-identities (e.g., Benson 1985; Cromwell and Thurman 2003; Fritsche 2002; Minor 1981; Stadler and Benson 2012). A smaller body of work also highlights that actors use neutralizations and other aligning actions, such as disclaimers and accounts (see Hewitt and Stokes 1975; Hunter 1984; Scott and Lyman 1968), to alter their social identities or the ways others view them (e.g., Chibnall and Saunders 1977; Copley 2014; Fritsche 2002; Jacobs and Copes 2015; Topalli 2005). In doing so, they manipulate the ways these other interactants would otherwise treat them (Felson 1982; Sitkin and Bies 1993).

Victims also use neutralizations to make sense of their victimization experiences (e.g., Agnew 1985). Through neutralizations, victims alter the ways they view their victimization and their roles in these experiences (e.g., Ahmed et al. 2001; Maruna and Copes 2005). This facilitates their abilities to maintain dignified self-identities and avoid shame and guilt (Agnew 1985). In some cases, such neutralizations also alter how victims perceive the persons that have harmed them and thereby facilitate victims’ continued involvement or relationships with these victimizers (e.g., Ferraro and Johnson 1983; Higginson 1999; Tomita 2000; Weiss 2009;).

Research on police interviewing has demonstrated that police officers also rely on neutralizations when attempting to elicit confessions from suspects. In short, officers using the Reid technique will introduce possible neutralizations for suspects’ actions while interviewing them. Officers do so with the intent these suspects will then identify officers as likeminded persons who also consider the introduced neutralization as an acceptable justification for the crimes they are suspected of committing and, because of this, see their criminal actions as justified (e.g., Copes, Vieraitis, and Jochum 2007; Leo 1996). Put differently, officers will “give” neutralizations to interviewees in order to encourage them to take actions—here, confessing crimes—they otherwise would not.

Interactional sociology highlights that actors can also influence the way other interactants behave through “altercasting”—or by taking actions intended to shape the way these others identify themselves (Felson 1978; Weinstein and Deutschberger 1963). One way interactants can altercast others into identities that will take favorable actions is by offering accounts to them (Blumstein et al. 1974; Scott and Lyman 1968). In doing so, they can cause these others to reconsider how they should view themselves during the interaction and the lines of action they can take (Felson 1978).

Thus, prior literature illustrates that actors may introduce neutralizations and similar concepts (i.e., accounts) to interactions as ways to manage their own identities or to shape the ways others see themselves. It also highlights that victims use neutralizations to manage their identities. What has yet to be examined, however, is whether and how potential offenders may provide neutralizations to potential victims as a means to altercast victims’ identities and thus manipulate their attendant behavior such that it facilitates victimization. In the present study, we address this lacuna by examining the neutralizations a group of 87 active online romance fraudsters incorporate into their interactions with a victim. In doing so, we discuss how these neutralizations help facilitate online romance fraud by altering the way potential victims see themselves, and thus the actions they may take, when interacting with potential fraudsters.

Our study first contributes to understanding of neutralizations by exploring how neutralizations can be used by offenders as tools to assist their offending. We also highlight the role neutralizations play in the altercasting process. Additionally, we add to current knowledge of online romance fraud by explicating some of the processes that occur during the grooming stage of this offense. Finally, we discuss implications of our findings for understanding of victim-blaming as it occurs to victims of online romance fraud.


2.1 | Neutralizations and aligning actions

Drawing from Sutherland’s (1947) theory of differential association, Sykes and Matza (1957) posited the concept of neutralizations as a way to explain how juvenile delinquents with “commitments to the dominant social order” (Maruna and Copes 2005: 9) violate social norms yet exhibit little or no guilt afterward. Sykes and Matza (1957) argue that delinquents assuage anticipated or actual guilt that would otherwise stem from these violations by rationalizing or justifying their actions. These justifications “neutralize” guilt by allowing delinquents to reframe their understanding of the act and their role in it, the identities of the persons affected by the act or those accusing them of wrongdoing, and its outcome (Sykes and Matza 1957; see also, Agnew 1994; Benson 1985; Maruna and Copes 2004).

Neutralizations can be part of an internal dialogue or verbal statements shared with others (Fritsche 2002; Lyman 2000). In the latter case, they also function as a means by which actors can manage social repercussions for their norm violations (Scott and Lyman 1968; Topalli 2005). Scholars following Sykes and Matza (1957) have noted that, in addition to neutralizations, actors also use other conceptually similar “aligning actions” such as accounts and disclaimers to perform similar functions (see Scott and Lyman 1968; Hewitt and Stokes 1975; Stokes and Hewitt 1976).

Key in Sykes and Matza’s (1957) original proposition is that neutralizations are learned through social interaction (see also, Cressey 1953; Coleman 1994, 2002; Copes et al. 2007; Green 1997; James and Gossett 2018; Klenowski 2012; Topalli 2006). Because of the important functions neutralizations and other aligning actions play in helping actors manage healthy self-images, prevent conflict, and manage social order, learning them is an important part of socialization (Maruna and Copes 2005; Scott and Lyman 1968; Sykes and Matza 1957). Moreover, through socialization, actors learn what normative explanations are broadly used and approved of throughout a culture (Stokes and Hewitt 1976). They also learn what types of neutralizations or other aligning actions “are acceptable for which actions” (Cohen 2001:59) in specific social circles (see also Scott and Lyman 1968 on “background expectancies”). Hence, an actor can draw on cultural understanding to determine what neutralizations may be seen as acceptable by others for his or her own actions as well as what they may see as acceptable explanations for their own behavior.

Sykes and Matza (1957) initially proposed five types of neutralizations: “denial of responsibility,” “denial of injury,” “denial of victim,” “condemnation of the condemners,” and “appeal to higher loyalties.” Since then many new types of neutralizations have been conceptualized. These include the metaphor of the ledger (Klockars 1974), defense of necessity (Minor 1981), denial of the necessity of law (Coleman 1994), denial of criminal intent (Benson 1985), justification by comparison (Cromwell and Thurman 2003), and denial of humanity (Alvarez 1997), among many others (see, e.g., Copes 2003; Schlenker and Darby 1981; Schonbach 1990; Tedeschi and Reiss 1981).

The number of types of distinct neutralizations and other aligning actions is “theoretically…unlimited” (Fritsche 2002: 376). This is because the devices used for norm violations are specific to certain social and cultural settings (Tedeschi and Reiss 1981). This led Maruna and Copes (2005) to argue that advancing neutralization research requires more than developing contextually specific typologies of neutralizations. To this end, researchers have explored various aspects of neutralizations. For instance, they have examined how actors committed to illicit behavioral norms neutralize conventional behavior (e.g., Topalli 2005), how this does not necessitate drift between conventional and street moral codes (e.g., Jacobs and Copes 2015), and how neutralizations are part of the narratives actors construct and by which they make sense of their lives (e.g., Dickinson and Jacques 2019; Presser 2008).

Neutralization research has also moved beyond the roles neutralizations play among offenders to examine whether, how, and to what end neutralizations are used by crime victims. Agnew (1985), for example, argues that victims of crime use neutralizations to “convince themselves that their particular victimization was not harmful” (221). They do so by reframing their understanding of the outcomes of their victimization and their own identities as victims. Agnew (1985) notes that victims may cast their victimization as not resulting in actual injury. They may also reframe themselves as not responsible for the victimization, as persons who are not vulnerable, or as willing participants (as when victims are harmed in the course of protecting others). In doing so, they no longer see themselves as “victims” which, in turn, reduces their fear of future victimization (see also, Junger 1987).

Later research building on Agnew (1985) demonstrates that when victims use neutralizations or accounts to reshape how they view themselves, their victimization, and their victimizers, this can then influence their future actions. Studies of intimate partner violence (e.g., Bergen 1998; Ferraro and Johnson 1983; Herbert, Silver, and Ellard 1991; Mills and Malley-Morrison 1998) demonstrate that sometimes victims explain their continued involvement with abusive partners through the use of such neutralizations. Research among the victims of sexual assault (e.g., Weiss 2009, 2011), statutory rape (e.g., Higginson 1999), and elder abuse (Tomita 1990, 2000) highlight how neutralizations perform similar functions in determining how victims act following these crimes. That is, they use neutralizations to make sense of not reporting the crime or their continued involvement with victimizers. Thus, victims’ neutralizations and, moreover, the identities they take on as a result of these neutralizations can influence their involvement in future victimization. What is less understood is whether offenders play a role in this neutralizing process by encouraging victims to use specific neutralizations.

As noted previously, police interviewers will encourage suspects to use specific neutralizations when attempting to gain confessions from them. More specifically, police interviewers using the Reid Technique of Interviewing and Interrogation will offer suspects “moral justifications” and “downplay the seriousness of the offense” (Copes et al. 2007: 448) during questioning. Interviewers who have been taught this technique do so because they learned that providing suspects with excuses or justifications for their behavior will cause them to “realiz[e] that interrogators understand and are sympathetic to the situation” (Copes et al., 2007: 450). The thought behind this being that if suspects identify officers as sympathetic, they will be more likely to confess (see also, Inbau et al. 1986; Kassin 2005; Leo 1995). Hence, research on the Reid technique has demonstrated that neutralizations can be given to offenders to shape their behavior. What has not been examined, however, is whether offenders use neutralizations in a similar manner to shape the behavior of their victims.

2.2 | Altercasting

Of course, a large body of sociological work examining interpersonal interaction has shown that actors attempt to guide the behavior of other interactants (e.g., Garfinkle 1956; Goffman 1959, 1967, 1969). One way they can do so is by “altercasting”—or taking verbal and nonverbal actions that project other interactants (i.e., the “alter” in interactional terms) into certain identities (Weinstein and Deutschberger 1963). Because the lines of action perceptually available to an individual are limited by his or her identity, successfully altercasting an interactant from one identity to another can change the actions he or she sees as acceptable during the interaction (Goffman 1961: 85; Blumstein et al. 1974). For instance, actors in groups who are altercast by group members from identities as regular group members to identities as leaders will then act as leaders do (Beckhouse et al. 1975). Likewise, healthcare workers use altercasting when dealing with patients who are acting in ways contrary to their convalescence to project them into identities of “sick” people. These patients then act as they perceive sick people should—by following doctor’s orders (e.g., Jarvinen and Kessing 2021; Spitzer and Volk 1971).

As already mentioned, interactants can introduce accounts into their interactions as a way to altercast others into favorable identities. Just as actors’ cultural understandings (i.e., “background expectancies” [see Scott and Lyman 1968]) inform their knowledge of what accounts are acceptable for what actions, they also guide their knowledge of what identities honor specific types of accounts (Blumstein et al. 1974; Scott and Lyman 1968). Because of this, receiving a certain type of account may cause an individual to consider that he or she should take on a certain identity in the interaction. For instance, prior research has noted that when illicit drug sellers are given deferential accounts from customers owing money they then see themselves as forgiving persons for whom it is appropriate to allow customers more time rather than persons for whom violent vengeance is appropriate (Dickinson 2017).

This research demonstrates that accounts altercast others and that this process occurs among offenders. What remains understudied is whether offenders offer neutralizations to victims as a means to altercast them into identities more likely to take actions that will facilitate victimization. We add to this gap in the literature by exploring whether and how this occurs among online romance fraudsters and their victims.

2.3 | Online romance fraud

Online romance fraud refers to instances where actors—herein referred to as “fraudsters”—financially defraud victims “through what the victim perceives to be a genuine relationship" (Cross, Dragiewicz and Richards 2018: 2). It is distinct from fraud more generally in that the crime is initiated and carried out via various online dating websites and other service providers (e.g., social media platforms) (Ross and Smith 2011; Whitty 2013b). The key characteristic of online romance fraud distinguishing it from other types of online fraud is that those committing it use the illusion of romantic relationships to steal from victims (Budd and Anderson 2011; Cross et al. 2018).

Whitty (2013a) argues online romance fraud consists of several sequential stages (see also Budd and Anderson 2011; Cross et al. 2018; Kopp et al. 2016;). In the first two, actors seeking relationships somehow come into contact with fraudsters who then present themselves as “ideal partners.” It is important to note that in these stages victims not only consider themselves—or their self-identities—as potential romantic partners but may also be wary and distrustful of those with whom they are interacting. After presenting themselves as ideal partners, fraudsters “groom” potential victims “until they are ready to give money” (Whitty 2013b: 678). In the following stages, fraudsters persuade victims to send them money using a variety of techniques. For instance, they may ask for small amounts of money to test victims’ willingness to send it, or they may present false urgent crises (e.g., medical emergencies) and ask for large sums of money (Whitty 2013a, 2013b). Regardless of what strategy fraudsters use, success hinges on whether fraudsters have effectively groomed the victim (Cross et al. 2018).

The scant but important research on online romance fraud suggests that grooming potential victims is comprised of three interrelated processes. First, fraudsters attempt to shape the way they are identified by potential victims such that are seen as potential romantic partners and not as threats (Kopp, Sillitoe, and Gondal 2017; Whitty 2013b). This can entail sharing false information about who they are, where they live, and their interests (e.g., Koon and Young 2013; Whitty 2013a). For example, fraudsters may pretend to serve in the military or to hold positions of authority (Cross and Holt 2021). Second, they take steps to ensure potential victims view their interaction as romantic rather than predatory in nature (Cross and Lee 2022; Whitty 2013a, 2013b). To do so, they may declare love for the victim, contact them frequently, send photographs, and make claims for hopes of a “committed, permanent relationship” (Carter 2020; Kopp et al. 2016; Whitty 2013a: 7).

In the third process, fraudsters groom the way potential victims self-identify (Carter 2020). Research on online romance fraud and other types of fraud suggests that a key way they do so is through altercasting. For example, Whitty and Buchanan (2016) note that online romance fraudsters lead victims into seeing themselves as romantic partners who are destined to meet with the fraudster’s fabricated identity (see also, e.g., Whitty 2018). Wang and Topalli (2022) have highlighted these kinds of fraudsters also take steps to trigger visceral responses in victims and thereby encourage them to see themselves as “supporters” (see also, e.g., Whitty 2013b). Likewise, Lea and colleagues (2009a) illustrate that it is common for fraudsters more broadly to altercast victims into roles of friends or as persons subservient to the projected authority of the fraudsters. By altercasting victims into each of these types of identities, fraudsters intend on encouraging them to take actions (e.g., sending money) that would be in accordance with the identities: to act as a lover, a supporter, a friend, or as a subservient person.

Hence, extant research suggests that one way online romance fraudsters groom their victims is by altercasting them into favorable identities. What has not been examined is whether and how online romance fraudsters offer their victims neutralizations or other aligning actions as a means to do so. In what follows, we explore the ways a group of active online romance fraudsters attempt to do so in a series of email exchanges with a potential victim. Our study contributes to understanding of the role neutralizations play among offenders, to the relationship between neutralizations and altercasting, and specifies the important role of neutralizations in grooming process among online romance fraudsters.


The data informing the current study were collected from a series of email exchanges with a sample of 87 online romance fraudsters. To locate the fraudsters, we drew from reports of fraudsters on the website is a platform where victims of online romance fraud report the individuals (fraudsters) who have defrauded them. It is important to note here that all of the reports publicly available on the site have been verified by its administrators through the review of supporting documents supplied by victims. Each report includes the fraudster’s age, email address, phone number, social media information, and a brief description of the scam (see also Wang et al. 2021 for a thorough description of the website). It should be noted that this website only includes information about fraudsters claiming to be female.

To locate online romance fraudsters, we collected the email addresses of alleged fraudsters from these reports. We did not collect any other information. To perform our collection, we developed a Python scraper to only gather the email addresses of all fraudsters reported to this site in 2022. We selected 2022 because it was the most recent year of complete data available at the time of data collection.

TABLE 1: Email protocol

Group 1:

Group 2:

Group 3:

Email 1

Hi love. This is Michael. We have talked before. Do you remember me? How are you?

Email 2

I’m so excited! My birthday is coming up and my parents just sent me a $250 gift card on Cash App!!! I do not know how to spend it! If you have it, what would you use it for?

Email 3

But I was thinking about spending it on buying new cookware, do you think what you need is more important than mine?

Email 4 & Money

That sounds fun. I’m sending you the money as a gift card. Check your inbox now, and confirmed if you get it.

Sent nothing

Sent 1 dollar.

Sent 10 dollars.

Email 5

Hi, I think you should receive your money now! What will you or did you use this money on? I am very curious.

Through the initial scraping we collected 607 unique email addresses. For the purposes of our study, we considered each unique email address as representative of a unique individual. We then sent a standardized introductory email wherein we posed as a potential victim to each of these addresses. This email and the subsequent standardized emails we sent to fraudsters are detailed in table one. 135 of these email addresses were inactive. We then randomly assigned the remaining 472 email addresses to one of three groups. 145 were assigned to group 1, 156 to group 2, and 171 to group 3. After these fraudsters responded to our first email, we then sent a series of standardized emails to them designed to tap into whether these fraudsters would offer neutralizations to a victim (see table 1).

Email 2 informed the fraudster that the victim had money and inquired as to what the fraudster would spend such money on. Email 3 asked whether the fraudster’s needs were more important than the victim’s needs. Following email 4, wherein we informed the fraudster that the victim was sending money to her, we varied the amount of money sent to the fraudster. Group 1 received nothing. Group 2 received one dollar. Group 3 received ten dollars. Our final email then inquired as to what the fraudsters spent the money on. Our full research design received approval from the human subjects review board at XXXX.

Of the fraudsters in each group, we received responses to every email from 22 fraudsters in group 1, 32 in group 2, and 33 from group 3. For the current study our final sample is comprised of these subjects. Moreover, for our analysis we treat the subjects as one group.

We do so because we found no meaningful or significant differences between the responses of the fraudsters in each group as a result of varying the amount of money delivered to them. Hence, our final sample size consists of 87 fraudsters.

Additionally, because it is possible that multiple victims reporting to were victimized by the same fraudster using different aliases and emails, it is also possible that some of the fraudsters we present as unique individuals in our findings are actually the same person. Nevertheless, because the purpose of the current study is to identify whether fraudsters offer neutralizations to victims and attempt to altercast them, this should have little to no impact on our findings. In other words, if a fraudster is represented twice or more in the dataset, then it simply provides more opportunity to identify the ways fraudsters offer neutralizations to victims.

3.1 | Analysis

During analysis we used the qualitative analysis software NVivo to assist in sorting and organizing the data. Analysis began with the second author exploring the data for patterns within and across the emails exchanged with the fraudsters. The second author then sorted similar statements and languages into general domains (e.g., “needs,” “relationships,” etc.), which were then further classified by separating them into more specific subdomains (e.g., “bills,” “medical needs,” etc.). Throughout this process, conceptually similar themes were combined into broader thematic domains. In addition, themes that were not found to be theoretically relevant were discarded (e.g., “cues of urgency”). Following this first wave of analysis, the first author analyzed the data in the same fashion. We then compared the two waves of analysis for similarities and dissimilarities and found no thematic differences. The identified themes thus comprise the findings.


Our analysis of the email exchanges with the fraudsters indicates they encourage potential victims to send them money by both providing them with neutralizations and by altercasting them into identities that may look favorably on sending them money. They do so in four ways. First, fraudsters appeal to vicarious necessity or implore victims to consider the fraudsters’ needs. They also appeal to an intimate relationship or suggest victims view their relationship as intimate in nature. Third, they deny susceptibility or subtly persuade victims to see themselves as holding more power in the interaction. Finally, fraudsters appeal to religious identity or encourage victims to consider their own religious identities. While it was common for the fraudsters’ emails to contain two or more of these domains, at times even within the same sentences, we present them as distinct categories for the sake of conceptual clarity.

4.1 | Appeal to Vicarious Necessity

By far the most common way all of the fraudsters suggested the victim neutralize his reluctance to send them money was by claiming they were in urgent need and, moreover, that he was the only one that could help them resolve it. Some, like Brooklyn1, were vague and claimed they needed money to, in her words, “buy what I need.” Most of the fraudsters, however, were more specific about their needs. These generally fell into one of three categories. First, they claimed to need money for “bills” (Hannah). For some, these bills included groceries or food. Ocean said she needed money “to buy mine food stuff, buy groceries2.” Others stated they needed money for rent or a place to live. Alice was one of these. She stated, “I will used it [the money] to pay off my house rent. It will be due very soon this month.” Likewise, Hailey stated “Hun I have to pay for my rent bills if not I will not get any where to stay !!” She followed this up in a later email, stressing:

I wished to get more than 250$ to add it to my bills so that my landlord will not push me out of the house ,So hun I know you are the only man of my life who can help me out of this pain so please help me ..?

In addition to food and rent, the fraudsters’ other bills included “clothes” (Eliana), “gas” (Cora), and their “phone” (Jennie).

Second, a small number of the fraudsters also claimed they needed money to address their physical well-being. Some claimed they needed money for medicine. For instance, when stating what she spent the victim’s money on, Madelyn said, “I got some meds with it since I’m not feeling well with my menses.” Larisa’s needs were more dire. After receiving some money, she replied:

Well that’s some of my meds, I do not have enough money to pay for it. I am very sick now…3 you could tell I need this to survive… you should know that $100 bucks can safe a life down here when I get my meds.

For others, receiving money was a matter of surviving dire circumstances. Nancie, for example, claimed to be placed in a United Nations refugee camp in Senegal and needed money, in her words, “so that i will leave this place as soon as possible.” Whereas Lili stated she needed to flee Ukraine. “Oh I really would appreciate this [receiving money] because I need to leave Ukraine,” she stated, “this bombs too kuxh amd am scared for my life.” After being questioned whether her need was more important than the victim’s, she replied, “I am afraid to die in this bombing. Of course, life is more important. Did you see what happening in my country?”

Last, a small group of the fraudsters also suggested they needed the money to address the needs of their family members. Nova stated, “please i really need you to help me and my daughter.” Nancie wrote similarly, stating she needed money, “for the sake of my and my people's life. Please.” Evelyn claimed, “I will give it [the money] to my girls for her for birthday gifts.” And Riley said “I will use it and get my granny some health stuffs, she is in bad condition.”

Previously, Minor (1981) argued that offenders will sometimes neutralize their crimes by reframing them as necessities (see also, Chibnall and Saunders, 1977; Copley, 2014). That is, they ameliorate their guilt by reframing their actions as important because they are means to necessary ends. Here the language of the fraudsters emails suggests that they are attempting to get victims to similarly neutralize their own misgivings about sending the fraudsters money. Consider that victims of online romance fraud may enter interactions with fraudsters wary of the potential of being defrauded or otherwise duped (Sorrell and Whitty, 2019). Because of this, they may be mindful that some actions they take during the interaction—such as sending money—could potentially result in this outcome. They may consider these actions, then, as inappropriate. But when fraudsters claim they “need” money and help from victims for bills, personal health, or to take care of their families, this can reframe the way victims see transferring funds to them. Rather than viewing this action as one that could lead to their defrauding—as they might if a fraudster simply asked for the funds—they instead see it as an act of charity. And if they see the action as such, this may then neutralize their feelings that such the action is risky or inappropriate.

Furthermore, in suggesting the victim reshape his view of the nature of the act of sending fraudsters money, fraudsters may also altercast him into an identity as a “supporter” or a “caregiver.” If the victim views himself in this way during his interaction with a fraudster, he may then act in accordance with the actions appropriate to such an identity—in this case, by sending money to help support the fraudster. It is important to note, of course, that the nature of our data precludes our ability to determine the ordering of when victims take on neutralizations offered to them by fraudsters and their shifts in identity. It is possible that one proceeds the other or that they are both so closely entwined as to be part and parcel of the same process.

4.2 | Appeal to Intimate Relationship

A second way many of the fraudsters suggested the victim neutralize his potential reluctance to send them money was by making comments that framed their relationship as intimate in nature. The first way they did so was by alluding to an existing or potential future relationship with the victim. In this vein, Kinsley said, “you are the person i will spend the rest of my life with… I am very very happy to have you as my darling husband.” Eliana wrote likewise, stating, “I promise to love you more and more with every passing day and be there by your side till my last breath…i'm convinced that the future has a special place for us.” In addition to direct comments like these, the fraudsters’ emails were also peppered with affectionate terms for the victim such as “hun” (Hailey), “baby” (Harper), “dear” (Murphy), and “my love” (Ocean).

They also did so by promising to spend any received money to meet with the victim. Claire, for example, stated she would use the money to “hook up with up with u and just u and let u have the left of the cash as much as u fuck me good.” Murphy echoed this, albeit less explicitly, claiming she would use the money to “have some good time together with my loved one.” Josie and Joe said they would use the money to "buy a flight" and visit the victim. Nancie was more detailed about why she needed money to travel. “I do not have an international passport that is why I need your assistance,” she said, “you send me money for travel documents…to enable me come over your country.”

Prior research has noted that sometimes offenders will neutralize their crimes by cognitively reframing them as “normal” or as actions commonly undertaken by numerous others (see Coleman, 2002; Henry, 1990 on “claim of normalcy”). Through comments alluding to a romantic relationship with the victim, the fraudsters in our sample are suggesting the victim similarly reframe their understanding of the nature of their interaction. Whereas prior to such comments victims may see their interactions with fraudsters as potentially harmful in nature, these comments may suggest to the victim to instead view the relationship as romantic. This may cause them to feel differently—or neutralize—any potential misgivings they have about sending the fraudsters money. As with appeal to vicarious necessity, this may also cause them to reassess their role in the interaction such that they now identify themselves as romantic partners which may likewise cause them to define sending money as an appropriate action.

That the fraudsters sought to encourage the victim to neutralize their reluctance to send them money and altercast them into identities favorable to doing so was suggested in a lengthy story shared by Brielle. In one email she described how during her time in an orphanage in Russia she had a “good relationship with the teacher of [her] group in kindergarten” and became friends with her daughter, Irina. She continued:

Once Irina received a Barbie doll for Christmas…But she did not play with this doll herself! She brought this doll to the orphanage…and gave it to me…this is the most valuable gift I have had in my entire life. I know how much Irina loved this Barbie doll, but she gave it to me anyway! This act of hers showed me that if I really love someone, then I should be ready to give him the most valuable thing I have! Because there is nothing more valuable than giving joy to a loved one!

This passage can be interpreted as a subtle way to remind the victim that it is normal or appropriate for persons who are in intimate relationships with others to give them things. Therefore, if the victim defines their relationship as intimate—as the fraudsters have suggested they should by offering this neutralization—then they will define it as normative to send Brielle (and the other fraudsters) money.

4.3 | Denial of susceptibility

The third key way the fraudsters suggested the victim neutralize wariness about sending them money was by using linguistic strategies to shift power to him during the interaction. They did so in several ways. Some included statements in their email responses instructing the victim to spend the money as he saw fit. Autumn said, “I don’t know is your money spend your own thing.” Peyton wrote similarly, stating, “Go get yourself some good clothes and take yourself out for fun.” Others, like Dovie, pointed out that sharing any money was the victim’s choice. She wrote, “is your money then you have choice to spend your own thing.” Eliana followed suit, stating, “It’s your choice to decide.” Palmer was equally succinct, stating, “it is up to you.”

Some of fraudsters were more subtle in letting the victim know it was his choice whether to send money. When responding to being informed they were being sent money, they responded like Elia, who wrote, “if you want to share, I am fine with it.” Isabella echoed this, "Yes, do you want to spend it with me?" she wrote, "I would be very happy if you do." Brooklyn wrote likewise, “"Do you want to give the money to me now? I will be happy if you do.” What is important to note in these emails is the fraudsters’ use of language such as “want to” and “could” which also suggest to the victim that it is his purview whether to send money.

Unlike appealing to vicarious necessity or intimate relationship, which may alter the victims’ sense of the act of giving money or the nature of the interaction with fraudsters as well altercasting them into identities as supporters or intimate others, comments and language as this may neutralize victims’ misgivings about sending money by first affecting the way victims see themselves. Specifically, they may altercast potential victims into identities wherein they consider themselves as having more power than the fraudsters with whom they are interacting. Interactional sociology has noted that when an actor feels more powerful the actor may perceive a “probability that the other actor [in the interaction] will not be able to enforce his will in future interactions” (Kemper and Collins 1990). This can increase the actor’s sense of confidence which may lead the actor to consider him or herself as less susceptible to being taken advantage of or victimized by the other actor (Scherer 1984). Thus, if potential victims of online romance fraud come to see themselves as having power in their interaction with potential fraudsters, they may also see themselves as the types of persons who are less likely to fall for a scam. This view of self and its attendant sense of confidence may then neutralize any doubts they have regarding whether decisions to send money to fraudsters are unwise or unacceptable.

4.4 | Appeal to religious duty

A small number of the fraudsters (3) also suggested the victim neutralize any hesitancy to financially support them by referencing religion. The primary way all of these fraudsters did so was through comments indicating their own religious identities. Lucy, for example, stated “GOD will gaud you and give you long life.” Kinsley was more verbose. She wrote, “Thank and worship the Almighty God for giving us the grace to see the light of today and the opportunity to know each other.” She continued this vein later, writing, “I believe God has something special for me and I prayed to the good Lord to know that I had to deal with certainty…I like to meet you and plan our future life together if it is God’s will.”

Norma went further. She first wrote similarly to Kinsley. Referring to herself, she wrote, “born and raised up into a muslim family that cherish the principle of good moral child.” She then continued, stating, “I have faith it was Masha allah (Allah’s will) that led me to know you after fasting by offering prayers to him.” But in addition to notifying the victim of her own religious identity, she also outright called on him to consider his own when considering sending her money. “Please consider my situation,” she implored. “Just help me for the sake of Allah…Hear the cry of an orphan asking for your help.”

As when the fraudsters used language to altercast the victim into a powerful identity, the content of these emails suggests that they also attempt to altercast victims into religious identities as well. By referencing their own religious identities, they may be drawing on knowledge of common interactional behavior wherein interactants mimic the behavior (Chartrand and Lakin 2013), emotions (Hatfield, Cacioppo, and Rapson 1994) and identities of one another (Goffman 1967, 1969). That is, by portraying themselves as religious they may be doing so in the hopes this will encourage the victim to portray—and thus think of—himself likewise. The victim may then, in turn, act in accordance with this identity. That these fraudsters intended this outcome was indicated in Kinsley’s comment noted previously wherein she implored the victim to “just help me for the sake of Allah.” Because it is a common tenet of major religions to take care of or help the needy, this may entail sending “needy” fraudsters money.


The aims of the present study were to explore whether and how online romance fraudsters offer neutralizations to victims and to examine how these neutralizations may altercast victims. Our findings demonstrate that the online romance fraudsters in our study suggest potential victims neutralize misgivings about sending money in four overlapping ways. They first suggest victims neutralize the act of sending them money by reframing the action as one that is necessary to address fraudsters’ needs. In doing so, this may also altercast victims into roles as caregivers or supporters. Second, they suggest victims do so by recasting the nature of their relationship from one that is potentially suspect to one that is romantic in nature. This, in turn, may altercast victims into identities as romantic partners. In the final two ways, fraudsters suggest victims neutralize by including language in their communications that could altercast victims into identities wherein sending money may be seen as less risky or as the proper thing to do. That is, they altercast them into identities lacking susceptibility or those with religious mores.

Our study first adds to understanding of the roles neutralizations play in the offending process. It has been recognized for some time that offenders neutralize their criminal actions and that they learn these neutralizations from others (e.g., Sykes and Matza 1957; Maruna and Copes 2005). It has also been noted that victims use neutralizations to make sense of their victimization experiences (Agnew 1985). We add to these bodies of literature by highlighting that offenders can also use neutralizations in a way beyond their function at ameliorating guilt or anticipated guilt—as tools by which to facilitate interpersonal crimes. More specifically, we demonstrate that, because neutralizations are learned, offenders can offer or suggest them to victims in the hopes victims will “learn” them and thereby neutralize actions that could lead to their own victimization.

Our findings also suggest that this process of neutralization is closely tied to altercasting. Prior research has highlighted that learning and using neutralizations plays an important role in the construction of self-identity (see, e.g., Dickinson and Jacques 2019; Maruna and Copes 2005; Presser 2008). Here we note that this process can also be intentionally initiated by others. More specifically, we suggest that altercasting can consist of a process wherein actors learn neutralizations from others and then change their views of self on the basis of these neutralizations. This is what seemingly occurs when online romance fraudsters appeal to vicarious necessity or to an intimate relationship.

Moreover, our findings also suggest that being altercasted into another identity can potentially lead to the use of neutralizations or can be a way of neutralizing in itself. Recall how when fraudsters suggest victims deny susceptibility or view themselves as religious, these changes in self-identity may lead victims to alter the way they view actions—such as sending money—they may otherwise see as unacceptable. In other words, they may then neutralize their reluctance to take these actions. Thus, actors bent on shaping the behavior of others may also use altercasting as an indirect way to encourage these others to take on or learn neutralizations for specific actions. Our study thereby contributes to understanding of altercasting by highlighting that this interactional process is, at times, entwined with the process of learning neutralizations.

That online romance fraudsters suggest neutralizations to potential victims in effort to facilitate their crimes also speaks to current understanding of grooming as it occurs in other types of offenses such as the sexual abuse of children. Extant research on offline and cyber-enabled sexual grooming has highlighted that child sex offenders groom the environment, victims’ significant others, and victims themselves. That is, they take steps to insert themselves into social situations with vulnerable children, to tailor how they are identified by the child’s significant others (e.g., parents, caregivers, teachers, etc.), and to craft how their victims view the offender, their relationship, and themselves (Craven, Brown, and Gilchrist 2006; Kamar et al. 2022; Quayle et al. 2014; Whittle et al. 2013). Victims sometimes participate in abuse because their predators have convinced them they hold a dominant role in the interaction (e.g., Bennell et al. 2001), they are willing participants (e.g., Knoll 2010), or that it is their fault (e.g., Warner 2000). Our findings suggest that child sexual predators may altercast their victims in these ways by providing them with neutralizations for what victims consider to be unacceptable actions—participating in sexual activity or not reporting abuse to significant others. If this is the case, identifying the common types of neutralizations offered by child sex offenders to their victims and teaching these to potential victims and their significant others could play a role in helping victims protect themselves from this crime.

Finally, extant literature on online romance fraud and online fraud more broadly has highlighted that the victims of these crimes are often considered responsible for their own victimization (Cross 2016, 2018; Sorrell and Whitty 2019). This is because fraud victims are characterized as individuals who have willingly placed themselves in harm’s way due to their naivety, gullibility, or greediness (Carter 2020:285; Cross 2016, 2018; Lea et al. 2009). This “victim-blaming” can lead to fraud victims experiencing lasting psychological harm (Sorrell and Whitty 2019). What our findings highlight is that such victim-blaming discourse fails to account for how fraudsters may draw upon common interactional tools such as neutralizations and altercasting and intentionally push victims into identities with such characteristics. Thus, as Carter (2020) cogently argues, the poor decision-making of victims should not be attributed to them but rather the “skill of the fraudster” (297). It is important to disseminate this information to the family and friends of victims, law enforcement, and the public at large, because they may be more likely to support victims if they understand that victims are acting in ways appropriate to the identities fraudsters have pushed them into much like how everyone, at one time or another, has done likewise when being altercasted throughout the course of everyday interactions.


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