As international criminal gangs increasingly target online dating and social networking sites, as a means of extorting money from unwary victims, research funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) suggests that new strategies are needed for tackling the crime and supporting its victims.
The research, which was carried out by Professor Monica Whitty of University of Leicester and Professor Tom Buchanan of the University of Westminster, argues that the police, policy-makers, doctors and dating companies need to take into account the emotional state of those who have been conned, in order to prevent the crime, bring criminals to justice and support victims effectively.
"Professionals need to understand the awful details of this crime," says Professor Whitty. "In romance scams, people have to deal not just with losing thousands of pounds. They have to deal with the psychological trauma of being both robbed and jilted by a 'lover'."
Almost 230,000 people in the UK have been conned by online romance fraudsters since 2007, according to the study. The criminals pretend to be seeking a relationship, using a fake profile and traditional grooming techniques, in order eventually to extort money from their would-be lover.
The study suggests that dating companies need to issue clear warnings on their sites so that users are aware of potential dangers 'before' they fall in love. Although some people interviewed by Professor Whitty became suspicious when they were asked for money, they were so infatuated with their fictional 'sweetheart' by that time that they chose to ignore the warning signs.
"Daters need to be told, from the moment they sign up, that if a person is not willing to meet them in the first month they should move on. They also need to be told never to respond to requests for money. Dating companies could target advice at particularly vulnerable individuals especially those with high romantic ideals, previous mental health problems or a history of abuse" says Professor Whitty
The study shows that victims are often in denial when they are told that their 'lover' is a fiction invented by criminal gangs to extort money. This has important implications for police work since it means that they are vulnerable to a second wave of attack. Furthermore, victims can feel suicidal when the scam is exposed. The study recommends that the police call in health professionals as soon as the crime is reported. Doctors should also be made aware of these suicidal tendencies.
If courts don't recognise the psychological trauma of the witnesses, there is a potential for cases to be jeopardised and criminals to remain unprosecuted, Professor Whitty believes. "Imagine having to confront a criminal in court when you had believed them to be the love of your life," says Professor Whitty. Standing in the witness box could be extremely intimidating. She suggests that new policies are needed, which identify victims of romance scams as 'vulnerable witnesses' with the right to give their evidence via a video-link.
Professor Whitty has been working closely with courts in several romance scam cases. Much of her advice has already been taken on board. She is also working with the Serious Organised Crime Agency in the UK as well as with international crime prevention organisations.
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