[How victim blaming applies to romance scams. The latest research from Dr. Cassandra Cross explains how scam victims are blamed, how they are impacted and the influence on the reporting of scams. Who you should not tell about your scam, from Dr Brené Brown.]
The term ‘victim blaming’ has come to the fore recently in relation to photos of schoolgirls being published online, and one school’s response to this. As with rape and other sexual assaults in the past, the victim (schoolgirls) were blamed for their actions, clothing, etc inciting their abuse. The same happens with victims of romance scams.
“Victim blaming occurs when the victim of a crime or any wrongful act is held entirely or partially responsible for the harm that befell them“, according to Wikipedia. RationalWiki describes further: “Blaming the victim describes the attempt to escape responsibility by placing the blame for the crime or other abuse at the hands of the victim. Classically this is the rapist claiming his victim was “asking for it” by, for example, wearing a short skirt.”
The past years has seen an increasing understanding that rape victims are not to blame for their rape, no matter what they wear, and women walking through parks, or on their way home after a night out are not inciting their sexual assault simply by being out. The change in understand has been brought about by a concerted effort by women’s groups raising and successfully addressing the spectre of the sexual double standard involved. Continue reading Victim Blaming endemic in Romance Scams
A new book, a new resource, a great article for you to read… essential new items for the scam aware….
A New Book.
I haven’t met Elina Juusola but I do know she is another dating scam survivor. A colleague passed her details to me. She is stepping up and telling the world about her experience, to educate others, and this is highly commendable.
I frequently get letters from across the world from people who have just realised they have been scammed. These letters often talk about the shame and guilt that they have once they realised they have been scammed. How do I reply to them? I know they write to me because they must tell their story to someone, to make sense of it for themselves, and they know I will understand.
A recent writer said
I have been sending money to woman in ..[deleted for privacy].. for ..[deleted for privacy]… I am not stupid, and I realised that this could not be the real thing, but I continued to write to her. I denied the obvious for so long time. I feel ashamed of my self. I now delete all “her” e mails, but I still feel afraid and guilt.
It is a challenge to know what to write to people in this situation. I have been there too, wondering if it is a scam, denying to myself that it is, wanting the dream that is promised so badly. But I have had a long time thinking (and writing) about it since.
I felt moved to provide a ‘Right of Reply’ comment addressing the negative responses to a recent guest contributor blog posted on Starts at Sixty. Its re-posted here.
I recently wrote a blog about my scam experience which was posted on the Starts at Sixty website, which I have recently joined. As with previous publications by me or others, there were many comments questioning “how could she be so stupid?”, “hasn’t she seen the warnings?”, “why doesn’t she join a club?”, etc. There were also positive and supportive comments, but I felt moved to provide a ‘Right of Reply’ comment addressing the negative ones. The following is copied from my comment (Comment No 199) on Starts at sixty. I don’t know if it will be read by those who commented on the blog, but thought it was worth reposting here. Continue reading Right of Reply…
I was contacted recently by a woman who was concerned for her friend and wanted some urgent advice. “I have been listening to a friend’s beautiful love story unfolding, and then realised where it was heading”, she said. She had seen the same pattern previously herself but had pulled out. She had found my blog and got in touch. She acknowledged that “Although we are both intelligent women our need to be loved, and love, is stronger than reason, as you know”. Yes, I know this only too well and at a high cost.
I had already been thinking about this question, and had even drafted a book outline on the topic. I had been warned by friends, but disregarded the warnings, and have ‘kicked myself’ since. So here are a few pointers to help, from the perspective of being a friend. (Remember that men can also be scammed by women, its not allways this way around.)
Understand how scams/scammers work
It important that you understand how scammers work so you can understand what is happening to your friend.
The scammer has gathered information on your friend, and knows their weak points, and how much they want to be loved. They will have no qualms about using this against your friend to their monetary advantage.
The scammer will profess love quickly and deeply, making it seemed destined, special, magical, and its natural for anyone wanting love to respond to this. Though the text of emails, messages, chats are tried and tested pro-forma materials, they will seem genuine, personal and include promises of forever love. Your friend may at this stage be sharing with you the excitement of finally found their one true love.
When ‘in love’, the hormone oxytocin is engaged, and this heightens trust, so the friend will be more trusting of the scammer than they might otherwise be. This means that they will be more likely to not focus on the inconsistencies in the experience, passing them by.
They will be communicating at all hours, especially through the night, keeping your friend sleep deprived. This makes it more difficult for your friend to make rational decisions when the scammer eventually asks for money. The scammer may also provide legitimate looking documents as evidence of their credibility or financial capacity to repay money.
When confronted about being a scammer, the scammer will respond with righteous anger, feigning affront, and will encourage the friend to cut off from others, especially those with warnings. The scammer will say that “what we have is special” and “they would not understand so don’t bother trying to explain – they will understand when they see us together – don’t talk to them”. They will not ever intend to be together, but they will profess and promise otherwise. The scammer will encourage your friend to cut off from you and other friends or family. This may mean they will try and push you away or cut off from you.
A high level of intimacy will be developed, including possible connections to others in the scammer’s imaginary family, including children. This adds an element of normality and family intimacy which counters the sense that it might be a scam.
They ask for honesty and make lots of promises (but will never return them).
As a friend of someone being targeted for a scam
Keep close contact with your friend and resist being pushed away. Encourage them to keep sharing with you. You may want to just cry out “Stop it” but this might push them away from you and its important to keep the communication open.
Be respectful of what your friend is feeling, however try to keep them open the equal possibility that it is a scam.
If you can, get actual emails and photos of the scammer. Use these to do some checking using some of the sites such as romancescam.com, and scamsurvivors.com to check for previously stolen photos and search for stand-out segments of text. As the same ones are used frequently, you may find them already reported, giving you information to take to your friend as evidence of a suspected scam. Also do a Google image search on the photo: you are looking for the photo being connected to other names than the one used by the scammer. Make sure you check on all results pages, and check for any google messages saying there is more to be seen, checking these results as well. If you have the technical ability you can check the IP address in the email header as well to see if it is coming from the same location as the scammer.
If you do find evidence that it may be a scam, present it as another possibility, not “the truth”, and encourage your friend to look further for themselves. Be careful not to make them wrong or unworthy of love. When this happened to me I became rebellious, insisting that I deserved to be loved, and it pushed me further towards the scammer.
Here are some what not to sayand why tips from by Soraya Grant in her Scams of the Heart blog. This blog is excellent, and well worth a read in more detail.
The person who contacted me made a great point about the need for a friend to match the time and energy level of the scammer, and identified the “need to apply just as much bombardment of information and support, even when it feels like intruding”. She specifically judged when her friend could take in and be receptive to certain pieces of information. It takes a great friend to do this – I commend her on her efforts.
If you are not sure what to do, reach out, to me or some of the other sites offering support resources. There is help out there. See my Support for Victims of Scams page.
If your friend does part with money, and then realises they have been scammed, encourage them to report it. See my blog on this.
Luckily in this instance we can report a good outcome. Contact was broken off with the scammer, and life has moved on.
One last thing.. be wary about secondary scams. Once they are in contact they may try again. This includes, for example, scammers pretending to be police or Interpol, saying they have your money, or your scammer, including providing forged documents about this. Don’t be tempted to go there, its another scam. More on this in my next blog.
Following on from my last post The shame of being scammed, about some of the mechanisms of shame that operate around a romance scam and how debilitating this can be, in this post I will talk about how we get beyond the shame. If we let ourselves be defined by this shame, to let this shame consume us, we are unconsciously colluding with our scammer(s) to be the victim that they have taken advantage of. This post is about what to do about the shame when it incapacitates us.
Brené Brown talks in her work about how to stop the 3 requirements which allow shame to exist and grow: “Secrecy, Silence and Judgement”. She elaborates on how shame is often something we feel as result of childhood conditioning and wounding, and her work with gender differences for shame is also illuminating. Our focus in this post however is on the shame of a specific incident – the being scammed.
Nicholas de Castella talks about the cost of shame, including the energy lost through hiding and cutting off from our feelings, which in turn cuts us off from others. “In the splitting off process we lose our sense of aliveness and our sense of connection to our essential being” he claims. This may leave us feeling like we are “being reduced in size or diminished”, and also leads to feelings of “being separate and distant from others”.
I remember for the year or so after the scam how I would be reluctant to go out, except to family, and though I was talking to girlfriends, was unconsciously keeping it at a very surface level. I gave the impression of being very together and positive, whilst underneath I was feeling unworthy, shut down, and unable to be my confident self. How could anyone respect or trust me when I did not respect or trust myself. Though I did not realise it at the time, this also impacted how I operated at work. I was definitely diminished, cut off, and not my full self, just as de Castella suggests I would be when in a state of shame.
Only when I had to defend myself and justify what had happened to the Australian Tax Office (ATO), did I fully understand what had happened. The ATO wanted to tax me at a high level (46.5%) because of money I had taken out of a Self Managed Super Fund against regulations. In writing to the ATO I come to terms with the fact that it was not just ‘unfortunate’ that I had been scammed, as they had labelled it, but that I had been deliberately targeted by professional and skilled fraudsters who had groomed and manipulated my emotions so I would compliantly part with my money. It took a lot of researching of scamming to come to this realisation.
This fits with one of Brown’s four steps to deal with shame, which is to reality check the situation. One part of this when scammed is to truly understand that you have been defrauded, and the second part is to understand how deliberate an emotional manipulation this has been, and that it is not just a mistake that you have made. The relationship that the scammer has promised you was not real, and never was. From the outset the money they conned you into paying was never for the reasons they gave. The promises to return your money were never going to be kept. Though it may have seemed that you willingly gave money, your acquiescence was totally manipulated by their deliberate lies. The reality is that you were not at fault or to blame, in the same way that someone mugged is not to blame for the mugging, or someone who is raped is not to blame for that rape.
Understanding this also allowed me to have some compassion for myself, and for what I had done, and took away the self judgement and feeling of unworthiness. This in turn allowed me to talk with and reconnect more fully with others. As I wrote the Objection to the ATO ruling about this, I also shared it with my girlfriends. As de Castella says:
“One of the ways to release the charge on a particular incident that we feel ashamed of is to find a safe, honouring, non-judgemental space where we can bring what we are hiding out. A space where we will be honoured: seen, heard, felt and allowed to explore how we are feeling about it.”
Writing this objection to the ATO, even though it did not achieve an exemption from paying the tax, is the point at which I was able to shift from being a victim to being a survivor, and was able to fully acknowledge what had happened, and my true responsibility in it. It shifted the blame from me to the scammers, where it should reside. I was no longer feeling the ‘un-wholeness’ that was identified as a symptom of shame in the last blog post.
As an aside, the tax bill felt like I was being ‘fined’ for being a victim and left me with tens of thousands of dollars of debt in additional to what I had already lost in the scam.
In sharing the draft of the objection to the ATO with those close to me, and getting their feedback on it, I was able to break the silencerequirement for shame and fulfil another of Brown’s four steps – to reach out and share with someone you love and trust. This also allowed them to have some empathy for what had happened.
The third requirement for shame to exist is secrecy and the antidote to this is to speak out, to ‘speak shame’. “Shame cannot survive being spoken”, Brown says. This is the reason I have spoken to the press about my scam, why I write this blog, and why I started the Romance Scam Survivor Meetup in Melbourne. By becoming an Ambassador for ACORN, I have also been able to support the prevention message, and hopefully prevent others from having the same experience. From doing these things I have been able to regain my self-respect, and rebuild my strength and self-confidence.
The forth activity to combat shame and build resilience in dealing with shame, whenever it occurs, is to understand what triggers the shame feelings in us. Usually these are the legacies of our childhood, especially those common messages we receive at that time like “Don’t be seen”, “Don’t be heard”, etc.. The previous post talks about mechanisms which occur in scams. Understanding and awareness that our feelings are of shame enables us to not be caught in the judgement, silence and secrecy that maintains them, and instead to reality check the situation, share with friends about our feelings, and identify and speak out the shame that we are feeling (this does not have to be to the person who triggered the shame).
Having had my own baptism of fire experience with shame I find shame and how it operates within us fascinating. There is much more that I have not included here. I highly recommend reading more of these authors. Both add different and additional dimensions to the understanding of Shame and how to go beyond the shame…
After my last blog on the importance of speaking out about being scammed, I wanted to talk more about how Shame operates to keep us quiet, and the need to step out from behind shame.
Shame is one of the biggest factors that stops us talking about what has happened to us. It operates in several ways in romance scams, once we realise this is what has happened to us.
Firstly, we are ashamed of our own ability to not see through the scammer, because we have believed in their words and promises. We have thought we had something ‘special’. There is a societal expectations that we should be an effective judge of character and on this occasion we have been found wanting. We feel shame because we are not whole, we are deficient in this way because we do not have this skill. Because of this we do not deserve respect from others, and more painfully, we also no longer respect ourselves. We do not trust our own feelings, as a basis for action. Any trust in ourselves is broken. This is congruent with the definition given by Brené Brown, a leading exponent on shame mechanisms, who says a feeling of shame implies that we are a bad person, compared with a feeling of guilt, which points to a bad action or behavior.
Secondly, we feel shame because we have not had the security of our money as the highest motivation. Our western capitalist societies value financial security and rationality above all else, especially above love, which is seen as irrational. In this instance we have gone against this societal norm and given away our money because of love. Many of us who have done everything to assist our ‘loved one’ [the scammer] financially, have seriously and detrimentally damaged our own financial standing in the process, creating:
loss of security such as housing, now or future;
Loss of other valuables, assets, and ability to support ourselves into the future
loss of savings that we have work hard for years for;
increased credit through credit cards, loans, mortgages;
and at times, illegal activities such as stealing or using money that we are not entitled to use.
In some cases, it may be impossible to recover financially from these losses, and these losses may cause further financial detriment such as additional taxes or loss of credit ratings or bankruptcy.
Thirdly, shame is generated by the fear of being publicly humiliated. As Monica Lewinsky has highlighted in her recent essays and TED talk on the Price of Shame, the internet as a tool for humiliation is very strong, and its power enormous, to reinforce our societal view of what we have done wrong, no matter how incorrect it is.
I have experienced this directly, in the Facebook comments to the exposé that I participated in on A Current Affair, and more recently, in comments attached to an article in the Daily Mail. In reading the comments you will see many people saying the comments below. These comments hurt, because they do not reflect an understanding of the situation, which can be seen from my responses to the comments.
“How could she be so stupid” (I wasn’t stupid, I was deliberately targeted by professional, manipulative and skilled fraudsters who have honed their skills by doing it thousands, perhaps millions of times. These skills include the “same type of mind control techniques used by cult leaders and domestic and dating violence perpetrators”[i]. I did not know I was being lied to and my feelings manipulated.)
“Hasn’t she heard all the warnings” (No. I was never interested in online dating before, so was not aware of the warnings. I did not even know there was a need for warnings. When I was warned, I was already ‘hooked’ in the relationship, and the scammer encouraged me to disassociate with those who were warning me.)
“How could she give money to someone she has not met” (This was someone [the scammer] who had built up such a degree of intimacy with me that I had agreed to marry him. This was not done lightly. I felt I had met and got to know him, so this premise is incorrect. Even though I had not seen him, I had talked incessantly with him. It is not like I was giving money to someone off the street that I had not met before.)
My understanding of the motives behind these comments is that evidence of being caught in a scam highlights a potential vulnerability that we all have, but don’t like the prospect of. Making the comment pushes this fear away from ourselves, with a haughty declaration of “It would never happen to me” that clearly sets THEM, the invincible ones apart from US , the ones who get conned and scammed. So it’s a separation defensive mechanism through creating superiority. Whilst I understand the mechanism impacting those who comment, the victim’s fear of public reaction and ridicule especially when not feeling strong in ourselves, makes us feel doubly ashamed.
Lastly, any research we do into scams tells us that we are unlikely to be able to do anything to get our money back, so we are unable to rectify the situation, to make it right again, to get retribution, to apportion blame where it should reside, with the scammer. In this we are powerless, and the lack of control we have mirrors the lack of control we had to be rational in the first place within the scam. We are again ashamed that we cannot now ‘fix’ or redress the situation. This powerlessness is in contrast to the multitude of TV shows that portray the criminal being caught and punished.
All of these mechanisms of shame coalesce when we realise we have been scammed, so it is not surprising that being scammed not much talked about, at least in an open exploratory way. Scams are talked about to shock people into taking more precautions, but for us this is too late.
Brené Brown[ii] says that there are 3 things which allow shame to exist: “Secrecy, Silence and Judgement”. All of these are in operation, in fact they spiral together when we realise we have been a victim of a romance scam. Its no wonder that people do not report scams, and do not tell family and friends about it either.
Nicholas de Castella comments about shame:
Shame is an emotion. It is the sadness (energy of loss) in which we feel that we are wrong, bad, flawed or invalid. A common reaction to feeling shame is to tighten our bodies, leaving us feeling numb, blank and unable to respond. This is a collapse of being into virtually non-emotional existence. Our right to ‘be’ is invalidated – challenging our right to: have an experience, to have an opinion, to have a feeling, to have an existence.[iii]
The experience of shock and shame you feel when you realise you have been scammed is truly debilitating for the victim.
In my next Blog, I will talk more about how to come out from behind the shame and become a survivor.
Even after realising we have been scammed the one question that remains, not only for our friends and families, but also for ourselves is “How did this happen?”, “How could I, an intelligent, successful, down to earth, usually rational and responsible person, have done this?” I took several months to write out all that happened into a diary/timeline after realising I had been scammed. Even after doing this I still did not fully understand. That came later…
The reality is that we are ‘groomed’, similar to how child abuse victims are groomed.
These tactics of grooming by child abusers include :
the ability to charm, to be likeable, to radiate sincerity and truthfulness
establishing a trusting relationship, for example spending time with them and listening to them. They may treat the child as ‘special’; giving them presents and compliments.
use gifts and trickery to manipulate and silence the child into keeping the sexual assault a secret. This treatment can isolate the child from siblings, friends or parents.
gradually desensitising the child and violating their boundaries. For example, they may spend a lot of time with the child when he or she is bathing, dressing, or going to bed.
convincing them that if they tell about the sexual abuse, something terrible will happen
giving the child the impression that they have consented and that they are in a ‘relationship’ with the offender, or even that they initiated the relationship
making the child to feel responsible for the abuse, and feel too ashamed or scared to tell anyone.
As I compiled this list for this blog I understood even more about the deliberation used in romance scams. By changing the word child to person, and other minor changes to the sentence, all of the above happen in a romance scam (at least my scam), often including sexual abuse (through cybersex). There is one more tactic though that is more relevant in scams of adults, an understanding of which adds to the picture.
In my list of being groomed for a romance scam the scammer:
builds a very strong and intimate relationship, so that it feels in your mind like they are part of the family. This may include initiating a proposal of marriage, and positioning for and ‘committing to’ a long term partnership or marriage. I have highlighted ‘committing to’, as there is never any intention of following through on this in a scam.
Points 1, and 6 from the child grooming list above are relevant here. As well, there is evidence that as we become more ‘in love’ the love hormone oxytocin will create more trust and develop more empathy. We are very familiar with the ‘honeymoon period’ of a relationship and I suspect this is partly what is in operation during this period. We know from outside that when someone is in the honeymoon period we are in an altered state, we are seeing things ‘through rose coloured glasses’ and that it will, over time, pass and things will become normal again.
Donna Andersen, in her blog on Lovefraud.com, from her understanding of the work done by Paul Zac comments:
When psychopaths target us for romantic relationships, they shower us with attention and affection. They spend a lot of time talking with us, and conversation builds trust. They say and do things to indicate that they trust us, and we should trust them. They tell stories about themselves designed to appeal to our empathy. They rush us into emotional, physical and sexual intimacy.
All of this causes the release of oxytocin in our brains, which is absolutely normal. Because of the oxytocin, we feel calm, trusting, empathetic and content. We especially feel trusting of the person who caused this reaction in us — the psychopath.
Though Donna Anderson is considering psychopaths in a much wider context of romance related fraud than I am with romance scammers, I think the term is applicable. Scammers are unfeeling, and unconcerned with consequences, and when I replace psychopath with scammer, these statements are absolutely true.
Secondly, in romance scams, we are cut off from others. Initially we are cut off from the safety of the dating site, by encouraging us to talk via email, and then talking via a chat or video messaging system such as Yahoo Messenger or Skype. They will never let you see them in person however, because who they are is not the handsome person in the picture they have presented themselves to be in the dating profile.
If there is any sense of others warning us that this might be a scam, we are encourage to not listen to what others are saying, because “what we have is special, and no-one will ever understand” combined with ”I don’t want your emotions to be upset” and “when they eventually see us together it will be easier to explain”. And because we are now trusting, and feeling we have a special intimacy, we cut off from our friends.
Thirdly, point 5 above for child grooming translates in a romance scam to “If you don’t give me money something terrible will happen”. This might be innocuous initially, for example, I need something for my business supplies, but as the story is developed, there is ‘evidence’ of awful things happening such as threats of violence to the scammer; stories of being mugged/robbed; car accidents where people are killed; threats of prison and/or not being able to leave the country. These circumstances or reasons for needing money are given in a context of increasing levels of danger and urgency to allow the scammer to get to where their money is accessible and they can repay you the ‘loans’ that you have provided to get them out of trouble. If you don’t pay, terrible things will happen. Which because you are trusting, you believe.
Fourthly, and this one may be adult specific, scammers keep you sleep deprived
and continually engaged so as to minimise the time you have to reflect and think rationally about what is happening. They talk to you late at night, early in the morning, and through the middle of the night. Often requests for money happen in the middle of the night 1 am – 4 am when it is hard to resist them.
A friend used the term ‘spellbound’ when I was talking to her about my experience, and this term is very appropriate. We have been spellbound through professional and deliberate manipulation of our emotions by professional fraudsters, grooming us to part with our money. It was not personal for them, but the impact is very personal for us.
If I look back at the circumstances around how I got caught in a scam there are a number of things I can identify that made me particularly vulnerable.
The biggest thing is I felt ready, ready to connect, ready for a new relationship, ready to find someone special.
I had just moved interstate, back to the city where I grew up. I had not lived in Melbourne for 45 years, having left when I was 17 to go away to study at university. I had been back to visit of course, as all of my family except my Mum lived in and around Melbourne, but not lived here. So it was a big step.
I’m the sort of person who once they decide on something, I get myself organised and it happens. This was the case with the interstate move as well. I had been down for a couple of visits, doing job interviews, looking at houses, and on the last day of my old contract had a new job lined up to go to. I took a house unseen. I packed up everything, and moved, and it all went smoothly.
All of this meant that I felt good about myself. I thought, why not find someone to explore Victoria with. I wanted companionship. I had seen many other couples around me, often together for many years and still enjoying each other’s company, travelling around the world together. I wanted that togetherness for myself as well.
As I wrote in my book (Love over Money, still to be published ) I was ready. Being ready means you are open, in a state of anticipation and expectation. This is what makes you vulnerable as it is easy for those with ulterior motives to get their hooks in to us.
This combined with lack experience of online dating and the dangers meant I approached it expecting people to be truthful and honest, especially when they say they are. Scammers often say they are truthful and honest, and that they are looking for someone like this as they have been hurt in the past by people who have let them down.
In reality it is all a lie, but it is hard to detect that at the beginning. Scammers seem sincere, normal, keen to connect to the right person, and match that in us. And I responded normally, out of that open space, not understanding that it is all an act, a well tried script, a lie…