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‘Love bombing’, ‘trauma bonding’, plus the romance scam script to watch out for

Paloma Kubiak
Written By:
Paloma Kubiak

Thousands of pounds is lost to fraud every minute. While more is being done to combat this endemic, these are the signs and script to watch for, plus why the language associated with ‘falling for a scam’ needs to change.

A staggering £1.2bn was lost to fraud in 2022, according to trade body UK Finance. That’s the equivalent of £2,300 every minute of every day.

But starker still is that only 5% of victims ever report fraud so this figure is “just the tip of the iceberg”, says Nick Perkins, director for the fraud prevention centre of expertise at NatWest.

For many victims, particularly those of romance scams, their experience is tinged with shame, embarrassment and “psychological harm equivalent to that suffered by rape victims”, according to Dr Elisabeth Carter, criminologist and forensic linguist at Kingston University, London.

While there’s no shame on the part of the romance scammer who manipulates and distorts reality, victims are left with major loss of confidence, both with or without losing thousands of pounds in the process as the financial aspect disguises the emotional impact.

“A romance scam is one of the most pernicious, pervasive crimes and within the spectrum of fraud, it’s one of the most psychologically damaging because what the fraudsters do is use your own love, trust, self-esteem and sense of self and then use it against you so not only have you lost your love, your money, but also your sense of self.”

Victims are then judged as having “fallen for a scam”, or “being tricked”. Or they’re belittled with “it would never happen to me”. In other cases, victims may be ridiculed for having shared intimate messages or pictures with the person they loved and thought they could trust.

She says society, culture and messaging needs to change. “When you look at the society narrative around fraud, it’s something you ‘fall for’, not something that happens. Victims and banks get the blame. But let’s turn this around; it’s grooming and abuse,” Carter says.

She draws comparison to women being blamed for sexual assault or rape, for what they were wearing, and the idea that you will be a victim down a dark alley way but statistics show it’s more likely to be an acquaintance than a stranger.

“A romance scam isn’t committed by the dark hooded stranger on the internet. It’s not what it looks like. We can all become victims of fraud.”

Carter says romance scams are a type of coercion – which has been an offence since 2015 – but adds it’s very difficult to prosecute this type of abuse and coercive control.

The messaging around fraud needs to change. “Put the words ‘domestic abuse’ or ‘coercive control’ in there instead and see what it does to the messaging. Does it feel uncomfortable? eg don’t be a victim of romance fraud, don’t be a victim of coercive control. Don’t be a victim of sexual assault. You can’t say that.”

Carter says there is a lot of research about what makes someone susceptible to fraud, but when she started researching, she found nothing that looked at what makes criminals so persuasive, manipulative and effective at what they do.

At the ‘Swiping Left on Romance Scams’ event held by NatWest earlier this month, two romance scam victims shared their experience, the red flags apparent only in hindsight, and the ‘script’ used by fraudsters to help others avoid the same fate.

‘I swiped on the wrong guy’

A majority (78%) of scams start online but in 90% of romance scams, the victim never meets the person, Perkins says.

“At the heart of it is manipulation of human emotion, but the fact is that 80% haven’t even been on a video call so most of this is done through text and telephone calls but with AI, we can see where this will go. And it won’t be long before we have generative AI, deep fakes around this which will make it even more convincing so it’s only going to get worse”, he says.

More than £31m was lost to romance scams in 2022 and this type of fraud includes an average of eight payments, which is larger than any other scam cases. According to Perkins, romance scams are some of the hardest to spot by banks.

Cecilie Fjellhøy, co-founder of think tank LoveSaid, lost £67,000 in just three weeks but unlike the majority of cases, she met her boyfriend in person, and she also made more payments than the average eight quoted by Perkins.

She says she “swiped on the wrong guy” and was immediately “love bombed”. She fell very quickly in love and the fraudster flew by private jet to visit her in her hometown of Oslo, introduced her to his friends and family and employed her in his company.

This was the focus of Netflix documentary, Tinder Swindler, and Fjellhøy said that the fraudster told her that he started having problems with his business and was receiving threats from his enemies. For his protection to avoid using his own cards, he asked her if she had an American Express credit card.

“I didn’t, but I got one so that he could travel safely. I had to call Amex and tell them I was all over the world so they would increase the credit limit. I lost £67,000 in less than three weeks. My credit score was nothing. In the end I lost £200,000 – it was a huge conspiracy; he could never have done this by himself. This is what you will do for someone when you feel both scared and you feel love”, Fjellhøy says.

She adds that she spoke to his ‘daughter’ and he was so supporting that at the time, she didn’t see any alarm bells.

“He remembered every little detail and I still can’t fathom how he never slipped up once or called me and said something that another woman had said to him. He was so good at what he was doing.”

Fjellhøy explained that things started to change with her boyfriend’s behaviour when the money stopped coming in. But at that point she had already lost everything and it was too late.

“You keep holding on, because if you then realise [you are a romance scam victim] then your life is over. It’s scary, you keep up contact because maybe you’ll get some money back. You’re brainwashed.”

She says he would call up telling her he loved her and missed her, asking why the card was blocked and where’s the money. With the pressure and knowledge that his life depended on her and her money, she would be drawn in again.

‘I was laughed at by the police’

For Anna Rowe, co-founder of LoveSaid, her experience was more psychological than financial as she was victim to ‘catfishing’. When she found out her boyfriend’s true identity and the web of lies, she had nowhere to go and says she was laughed out of the police station.

Rowe explained that in 2015, she met the man on Tinder who said he was a lawyer in the UK and as she later found out, was using a fake name. However, money wasn’t his motivation – he was leading a double-life for over a decade. They talked online for three months before meeting and she says they were brought into a close relationship through “trauma bonding” during the course of their relationship.

“I was groomed into revealing lots about myself; that was done in a very clever way by him in offering up information about himself first which gave me the trust to also divulge things from my past. That was later used against me.

“When I discovered he wasn’t who he said he was, I tracked him down to his real life which hadn’t happened to him before so I was able to hand the police a very big file.

“I was laughed at and was told ‘what do you want us to do, your boyfriend’s lied to you’. I couldn’t get them to understand this predatory, pre-meditated behaviour and how he’d gone about doing what he did to get me hooked into this fake relationship. It took a long while for them to investigate but there was nowhere for me to go so I started my own website to help other victims.”

Rowe says she had to see a counsellor to help her cope, and through her website and contact with other victims (around 75-100 a week), she feels “immediate empathy”. “It’s heart-breaking for me and it’s really misunderstood about when people hand over money in these situations.”

‘Biggest lie that request for money comes out of the blue’

Carter says one of the biggest lies that is told to the public or that the public believe, is that a request for money ‘comes out of the blue’.

“It’s not out of the blue, it’s within a created world that’s been there for months or even years. This isn’t someone saying ‘give me some money’. There is credibility, legitimacy.”

In fact, money often isn’t spoken about for a very long time and fraudsters don’t present as “powerful” or “overbearing”, and they often say they’re scared of scams themselves.

Meanwhile, Carter explains that if you’re groomed, it’s difficult to see how you’re groomed exactly because you have been groomed. “This is why fraudsters are so manipulative and effective and are ‘hiding in plain sight’.”

“The very reason you’re on a dating site – you’re looking for love – is a vulnerability in itself. The type of things that criminals do to invite information which they use against the victim is what you would say in normal relationships. You would ask about their history – all of these things that are recognised, make sense when they’re asking it to build raport. If they didn’t ask you for that information, you wouldn’t think it was a developing relationship.”