• Building relationships online leaves us vulnerable to fraud and abuse

  • Cyber security expert Dr Jessica Barker explores how these scams happen, and the impact on victims

Romance fraud, while accounting for only a small percentage of all reported fraud cases, inflicts a disproportionately significant emotional and financial toll on its victims. This type of fraud goes beyond financial deception, often deeply wounding individuals' trust and their self-esteem. Victims endure not just the monetary loss associated with such scams but often also a profound sense of betrayal and, in many cases, a violation of their identity.

The psychological effects on those defrauded in romance scams are severe. Research highlights that, akin to identity theft victims, individuals tricked by fake romantic interests experience a wide range of emotional distress. The aftermath of a romance scam can lead to symptoms similar to post-traumatic stress disorder, with victims describing their experience as akin to grieving a death.

The sense of shame and stigma associated with being deceived in such a personal and intimate manner often silences victims, preventing them from seeking help or even acknowledging the fraud. This is why the official statistics about the scale of romance fraud are likely the tip of the iceberg, as many victims are unaware that they are being scammed, and then sadly feel a misplaced sense of shame which can prevent them from reporting the crimes.

While writing Hacked: The Secrets Behind Cyber Attacks, I interviewed Ruth Grover, who runs ScamHaters United and has spent the last 10 years supporting victims of romance fraud. She shared how recovery must tackle the unique 'triple-hit' nature of romance scams: financial loss, emotional devastation from the loss of a relationship, and the risk of identity theft. 

Scammers meticulously gather personal information under the guise of building a relationship, leaving victims unaware of their ulterior motives. When they have defrauded money from the victim (sometimes their whole life-savings), they then use the personal details they have gleaned from them to carry out identity fraud. 

Victims of romance fraud come from diverse backgrounds, united by a moment of vulnerability (which we can all have) that scammers exploit. The loss experienced by these individuals is not a reflection of naivety but a consequence of their capacity for love, trust, and connection. 

The rise of cryptocurrency has influenced the growth of fake cryptocurrency investment scams mixed with romance fraud. This particular crime is known as ‘pig butchering’, as criminals are going for the whole hog, ‘fattening up’ their target by getting close to them before ‘butchering’ their entire financial reserves.

A deeply manipulative part of these scams is that the criminals don’t ask their targets to send them money. Instead, they spend weeks or months building up the relationship before sharing the details of an investment website, where they suggest the target can set up an account. The websites look legitimate and convincing. When the victims are putting money into these ‘investments’ they see charts and data showing their funds making great returns, which encourages them to invest even more. But when the victim attempts to withdraw any significant sum of money, they hit roadblocks. 

In some cases, romance scams can take an even more sinister turn into image-based sexual abuse, where victims are blackmailed with their intimate images. This amplifies the need for a compassionate and understanding approach to support and recovery. In some cases of romance fraud, scammers will convince their victims to share intimate photographs and videos of themselves. The criminals may use explicit images or videos of the person they are catfishing (impersonating) to generate a sense of reciprocity: “I have shared these images of ‘myself’, why won’t you do the same in return?”. 

For the target of image-based sexual abuse – commonly known as sextortion - they believe that they are taking a close and intimate relationship to the next level. The scammer has built trust with their victim and used various techniques to make the connection appear real. Victims may even feel that this is the person they will spend the rest of their life with. However, after the victim shares images or videos of themselves, the scammer will threaten to share them publicly or with the victim’s family, friends, and online contacts. They will often use this threat to blackmail the victim, demanding money, or more explicit images. 

The FBI received 7,000 reports of online sextortion in 2022 and most of the victims were boys; tragically, more than a dozen victims are reported to have died by suicide in the US alone. It is accepted that, unfortunately, the number of reported cases of image-based sexual abuse is a small percentage of the true number of cases.

The stark reality of romance fraud, pig-butchering and image-based sexual abuse underscores the importance of fostering empathy and understanding toward victims. Recognising the multifaceted impact of these scams is the first step in supporting individuals through their recovery journey and combating the stigma that too-often silences and isolates them.

Dr Jessica Barker MBE is the author of Hacked: The Secrets Behind Cyber Attacks

Further reading

8 internet safety tips for keeping children safe online

Rebuilding trust after a relationship ends

The psychology of internet trolls: Why personalities change online

When did bullying become acceptable?

Understanding paranoia and extreme mistrust