The lucrative business of romance scams

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“The real crook doesn’t force us to do anything; it makes us accomplices in our own downfall. He does not fly. We give.”

– Maria Konnikova The Trust Game: Why We Fall For It…Every Time

A centuries-old scam flourishes on the internet: the love scam. In general, the motive is the same as it has always been, to deceive and manipulate for money or other financial benefits. The targets of modern romance scams are often contacted via social media or dating apps.

An onslaught of attention and affection known as “love bombing” quickly establishes an intense emotional relationship, usually followed by demands for money. The scam ends when the victim runs out of money or discovers the fraud.

Even more troubling is the impostor for whom deception and exploitation are not the means to material gain but the ultimate goal. They are “fisher-cats”, who create a fictional online persona and seek prolonged and intense online relationships with their victims.

Lydia Abdelmalek is currently appealing her conviction on six counts of criminal harassment in an elaborate catfishing scam in which she posed as the Australian At home and away actor Lincoln Lewis and British actor Danny Mac, known for his role in hollyoaks, among others. For nearly four years, she used their photographs and voicemail to engage multiple women in online romantic relationships. She persuaded her victims to send intimate photographs and then threatened to leak those images to their friends and family. One of these women committed suicide in a state that her father described as “utter despair”.

Another tragic case involves Renae Marsden, whose “friend”, Camila Zeidan, created a fictional young man, Brayden Spiteri, to cultivate an intense romantic relationship with Marsden, which resulted in plans for marriage. This character then abruptly ended the relationship, without explanation, which devastated Marsden and drove her to suicide.

A 2020 New South Wales coroner’s inquest attributed her death to elaborate deception and emotional manipulation perpetrated against her, but concluded that no state criminal offense had been committed.

This case and others highlight a difficulty the criminal law has in recognizing and prohibiting serious emotional and psychological abuse.

By unwittingly contributing to their own exploitation, the targets of romance scams often suffer more than the typical amount of self-blame and humiliation experienced by other victims of crime. And it’s not helped by the fact that community members tend to see them as partially responsible. Even therapists sometimes refer to the deception practiced by both stakeholders, highlighting vulnerabilities that make victims more susceptible to exploitation.

Psychologists sometimes refer to those who engage in this form of online deception as possessing the “dark triad” of personality traits: narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy.

Interestingly, the most exploitative—those who, like Abdelmalek and Zeidan, wield power and emotionally manipulate their victims—often work in helping professions. Abdelmalek was an educator at Barwon prison.

Their motivations are diverse: revenge, the desire to exert coercion and control over others, or simply to escape the limits of their ordinary and bodily existence. There seems to be an obsessive quality to their behavior and their online activity usually takes place over long periods of time.

Zeidan deceived Marsden for almost two years, Abdelmalek indulged in his deceptions for four years. And they often invest a huge amount of time and energy in the relationship. For example, Zeidan and Marsden exchanged more than 11,000 text messages over three and a half months in 2013.

The scam may even continue after law enforcement has been alerted; Abdelmalek continued to find new victims online while out on bail for previous offences. All of this suggests that this type of impostor can be difficult to deter.

How to protect yourself from these scammers? Most advice emphasizes self-help: be careful; do not send money to someone you do not know; if something seems too good to be true, it probably is; don’t trust someone who won’t meet you in person, do a reverse image search on all photographs, etc. The ubiquity of this advice implicitly recognizes that being proactive is the best protection. Notably, the law provides limited assistance.

Conventional romance scams can be lucrative. Data from the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission confirms their high financial cost, with an estimated loss of $142 million in Australia in 2021. While men more frequently report losing money, women are losing money. are more important.

Kaye Ferguson, who was twice targeted by men on an online dating app in 2020, was eventually arrested for stealing over $1 million from her employer, after draining her own bank accounts.

Middle-aged and older adults are common targets, not only because they are less internet savvy, but also because they have strengths. In addition to financial losses, victims’ personal information and mental health are often compromised.

When a victim suffers financial loss, various criminal offenses related to obtaining money by deception may be relevant. Threatening to harm can also be a criminal offence. But prosecuting a cybercriminal can be a difficult task, especially when they are in another state or outside of Australia.

If there’s no financial loss — as happened with Marsden — laws prohibiting cruel behavior can be hard to come by.

Abdelmalek was found guilty of harassment following an undercover operation organized by Victoria police in conjunction with one of his victims. But his conviction was only about his conduct after she began threatening and harassing her victims. When the behavior is simply emotional manipulation and exploitation, as was the case with Zeidan, the situation is much less clear.

It is possible, but not certain, that some of this behavior could be captured by coercive control laws soon to be introduced in Queensland and New South Wales. Renae Marsden’s parents are calling for a new law that would expressly ban the type of emotional cheating that has been perpetrated against their daughter.

However, drafting such a law will be difficult. How are we going to criminalize this exploitative behavior without capturing the everyday deceptions performed by ordinary people? Given that eight out of 10 people lie about themselves on dating apps — men typically about their height and income, women about their age and weight — any new laws should be limited to egregious behavior.

It is no coincidence that there is no specific law governing online emotional abuse in Australia. The difficulty is trying to establish how far the law should, or can go, to protect people from the intangible – but real – harms of emotional exploitation.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 15, 2022 under the headline “Rom-con artists”.

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