Victims of Dating Scams - Psychological and Emotional Trauma
It is often described as a double trauma. Not just the loss of money, but also the loss of a relationship. This loss has been likened to losing a loved one in death or even to mental rape.
Feelings can take many different forms depending on the person, the length of time involved and the degree of betrayal experienced. Every dating scam is unique. Just as every individual is unique. However, there are commonalities that many people report experiencing. Victims often go through stages of grief similar to those who have lost a loved one in death.
Victims can experience extreme anger, feelings of grief and loss, and, often, intense feelings of shame. Victims often blame themselves for not recognising they were being duped. They can suffer loss of confidence in their own decision-making and ability to judge situations and people accurately. They may experience a generalised loss of trust in others, and sometimes withdrawal and isolation.
The situation can often be exacerbated by lack of understanding and support from the wider community as well as friends and family. Family or friends who tried repeatedly to warn their loved one may also feel angry and betrayed by the victim for not being believed or trusted. Thus, breakdowns in family relationships can occur as a secondary trauma. Especially if a parent was the victim and adult children feel like large sums of money have been given to a stranger by their parent who refused to listen to their advice and warnings. Such situations can lead to continued friction and a loss of support for the parent once the scam is exposed.
Loved ones can feel a sense of betrayal that the victim put a stranger before themselves. Conversely, victims may - quite rightly - feel that they were entitled to make their own decisions about their money and relationships and resent having had their children or friends criticising their romantic or financial decisions.
But, once the scam has been finally realised, the sense of shame and an almost inevitable “I told you so” attitude from some people close to victims may cause them to feel devalued and demoralised in the eyes of their family. They must, not only recover their own self-esteem at a time when it might be at its lowest ebb, but also try and rebuild shattered and broken family trust and relationships. This may feel all but impossible for them when they are so low. Many report feelings of suicidal ideation. It is unclear how many take their lives after falling victim to a dating scam. Some victims of dating scams, especially if they were scammed out of their lifesavings, can even exhibit symptoms that would meet the criteria for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Public comment has often been punctuated with ridicule and disbelief that people could fall victim to dating scams, and this has hampered victims being able to reach out for emotional support at a time they need it most. Public ridicule and lack of understanding can lead to victims feeling a deep sense of shame, and feeling like something must be different or wrong in them compared to other people who “would never fall for such a scam”. This prevailing sense of shame can lead to ongoing issues of depression or anxiety, with subsequent loss of job productivity, and withdrawal from social supports and engagement within the community.
Others experience anger and rage and might try to engage with the scammer to enact revenge or get their money back. They sometimes can fall victim to secondary scams, where the scammer admits their deceit, but claims to have unintentionally fallen in love with the victim and truly does wish to be involved in a relationship with them. This secondary betrayal can lead to emotional devastation for victims who believe the scammer and are betrayed all over again.
For some victims who have engaged in sexual acts on webcam at the request of the scammer, the fear of such acts coming to light, or fear that they may have broken the law, can be utilised by the scammer as a form of blackmail. This can be a tool that effectively silences the victim, who lives with a pervading sense of shame and fear that can be emotionally crippling for them.
Some dating scammers also send money to their victims claiming the money is for charity, or a business deal. They request victims to process it through their own bank account and then send the funds to specified third parties via a money transfer system such as Western Union. They may instruct victims to deduct a percentage of the funds, ostensibly as repayment for money owed. In this way, they may appear to be genuinely trying to pay back money that has been previously requested and victims can be further duped by their stories.
In fact, such tactics are used by criminals as a form of money laundering. The money sent by the scammers will be in the form of fake or stolen cheques or money orders or will be transferred to victim bank accounts directly from other accounts hijacked via other scams. Once victims realise they have been scammed they may be fearful of being arrested and charged with receiving stolen funds or laundered money. This fear may prevent them notifying police. Victims and their families might be threatened with retaliation if they go to the police. In some cases, victims may continue to launder money as requested because they are frightened of the criminals or do not know how to safely extract themselves from the situation.
It is hoped that victims of dating scams can engage the services of a trusted counsellor, psychologist or friend that can provide emotional support and an outlet for the victim to talk through their feelings. Some victims, who do not have access to face-to-face support services, report that keeping a diary and writing down their experiences and feelings is helpful. Others have found that expressing their painful feelings using the mediums of physical exercise, music or hobbies helpful. Some others find they can only trust their animal pets and withdraw from human companionship for a time at least. Everyone is different. And their resilience and ability to work through a betrayal of this magnitude and their path to recovery will also be different. For some, recovery does not mean forgetting about what happened, but rather finding different ways to live with the pain and negative effects.
Some people have considered it a personal challenge to not let the scammer continue to affect their life in a negative way. They realise that the scammer probably does not give them a second thought, and has most likely scammed dozens or hundreds of others in similar ways. This can serve as a motivating force for them. Their revenge on the scammer is their recovery.
Others may feel that, if they get on with their lives and recover, they will be somehow lessening the severity of what happened to them. They may believe that recovery means there will be no remaining record of what happened and no outward sign of the terrible emotional and psychological and financial pain that was caused. Unfortunately, this mindset may prevent them moving on with their lives.
This way of thinking needs to be challenged. A mental health professional or trusted friend may need to assist the person to return to meaningful activities. Victims may need to be repeatedly reassured that their story has been heard and that moving forward does not negate or lessen the severity of their experience. For people who struggle with such feelings, creative outlets such as writing, music or art can be powerful tools for recovery. Such outlets can be a means of outwardly expressing their experience in a positive way. If you have been the victim of a dating scam, we hope that by sharing and reading other people’s experiences you may feel a sense of solidarity and discover insights and ideas that may help you on your journey to recovery.
Last updated: February 22, 2013
First published: February 22, 2013
Written by Deborah A. Christensen, BSc(Psych)
The British Psychological Society, Victims of Online Dating Scams
International Journal of Cyber Criminology, What’s love got to do with it? Exploring online dating scams and identity fraud
British Army, Online Dating Scams