I woke up with an insight the other night. I was part of a group brainstorming with Consumer Affairs Victoria. They want to do something about romance scams and were looking at intervention points. The insight I had is that one of the biggest resources for prevention messages is scam victims, yet it is virtually untapped. I’ve been saying for some time that more needs to be done for romance scam victims. There is currently very little done for or with them. Yet they have great stories to tell.
They are encouraged to report their scam to ScamWatch or ACORN, and they might get an automated response back with no identifying name, but to the victim, there is very little indication of anything else happening. They are left alone to deal with the grief, the shame, and the often devastating financial circumstances. They suffer through depression, low self esteem, lack of self worth, as well as sometimes suicidal thoughts and actions. I know this from personal experience, and from the many contacts I have with victims who tell me this, saying they are still in this state even many years after they have been scammed. Continue reading Victim stories as a prevention strategy
I continue to explore what causes the ‘altered state’ that is created when we are caught in a romance scam. Its not only others who wonder “how could she do it?” Victims also wonder about what they have done and why, even well after they have realised they have been scammed.
I think one of the culprits is Oxytocin, the so called Love Hormone. According to Wikipedia:
Oxytocin is a peptide hormone and neuropeptide. Oxytocin is normally produced by the paraventricular nucleus of the hypothalamus and released by the posterior pituitary.
All of what he suggests as positive responses to singing together can also be attributed to victim behavior during a scam. Further reading on oxytocin cites greater generosity and co-operation, heightened altruism and reduced anxiety as ‘pro-social’ behaviors linked with higher levels of oxytocin.
I know from experience that when inside a scam, we are committed to our loved one/scammer, and will do whatever it takes to support or rescue them from the many sorts of trouble they are in. Afterwards we wonder what happened, why we didn’t see what was going on, why we rejected warnings from friends, and stepped over any inconsistencies or red flags that there were. We don’t understand what happened even when looking back on it. Perhaps because the rational part of our brain was dis-engaged at the time. Instead our brain was immersed in the fog of oxytocin. Afterwards we mostly blame ourselves for what happened and loose trust in ourselves. After all, we actively gave the money. Or did we?
What this look at the pro-social affects of oxytocin reveals is that it is likely there are deliberate goals behind the building of the romance part of the scam. In developing the love within the relationship, the ‘love hormone’ is triggered and all of the pro-social affects are engaged:
empathy with the plight of the scammer
enhanced trust of them when they say they will give all the money back, and will be there soon
reduced anxiety and cooperation with what they ask us to do and what they say is the reason for things
altruism – sacrificing ourselves financially for our loved one
generosity, yes, we will give everything we have
encouraging us to take risks, and not see possible dangers or implications the relationship might have. Even if it’s damaging. Even if it’s toxic. (1)
If the scammer can engage the victim in cybersex, this is even more enhanced, so some of the research says. (2) Even more oxytocin induced ‘bonding’ occurs. I know that from experience too.
As well as the grief, shame, despair and financial struggle that goes on after a scam, in the periods when we are alone with ourselves, we wonder what happened, why did we do it. It is a great mystery even to those of us who have been in it.
We need to shift out thinking to emphasise that the romance aspect is a deliberate and critical foundation to the scam, in order to generate the oxytocin that lets scammers take control of us. Once the oxytocin is generated scammers are free to use all of the pro-social effects of oxytocin to have us part with our money. Syndicates of scammers have tried and tested which words and mechanisms lead to the best results, causing us to fall in love more easily, deliberately, so they can control us.
Yes, perhaps part of us wanted to fall in love. But that’s separate from the manipulation of that state and the deliberate abuse of consequences by someone else. That abuse is not OK. We understand abuse of power when it is say, between a teacher and a student. This is another form of active abuse of power. Its emotional manipulation as the ultimate power game, the winner of the game taking all the money, literally.
(1) Oxytocin, the Love and Happiness Hormone December 22, 2017 in Psychology
(2) Social effects of oxytocin in humans: context and person matter
Jennifer A. Bartz1*, Jamil Zaki2*, Niall Bolger3 and Kevin N. Ochsner3
1 Mount Sinai School of Medicine, Seaver Autism Center, Department of Psychiatry, New York, New York, 10029, USA
2 Harvard University, Department of Psychology, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 02138, USA
Its just over 5 years since I was scammed, and the third anniversary of my blog is on February 10, when I published my first post with my purpose and mission for this Blog. The most important issues I have covered since then in my blog are summarised here.
Since I started my blog 3 years ago I have posted 30 mini essays on topics about how scams work, its impact on victims, how law enforcement responds, the ongoing statistics, and recent books and research. As well, my site now has 11 different pages, including one which lists the many instances I have been interviewed for TV, Radio, Magazine and Podcasts.
[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
I saw the term “taking the brain” in an article where an ex-scammer talked about the stages they go through in a scam. It is the end goal of “love bombing”, the intensive grooming that scammers go through, where “the victim’s defences are broken down by exhaustion, social isolation and an overwhelming amount of attention“.
In the long article in AARP The Magazine , Enitan [false name used in the article], the ex-scammer says
“The goal is to get the victim to transfer allegiance to the scammer. “You want them thinking, ‘My dreams are your dreams, my goals are your goals, and my financial interests are your financial interests,’ ” he says. “You can’t ask for money until you have achieved this.”
I’ve had a number of contacts recently from family members of people who they believe are being scammed, and have given away huge amounts of money. They wonder why they cannot get through to their loved one, and reached out to me for help. I also saw a show on Dr. Phil where he interviews a woman who has given away US$300,000, and was still declaring her love and refusing to admit she had been scammed.
Those who have realised they have been scammed continually get the question, “How could you give you money to someone you have never met?” It is nearly impossible to explain to people who have not experienced it. This phrase, “taking the brain” is the best explanation I have seen yet. It is no wonder, that with this intent plus tried and true techniques being used by scammers, that those caught in the scam have agreed to marry their fictitious partner, feeling like they have found their one true love. This is the confirmation to the scammer that they have control, and can now ask for money. I certainly felt, after I realised that I had been scammed, that I was not in control of myself at that time. It is not detectable from the inside the scam though.
On a SBS TV program showing a BBC Documentary 2015 – Is Your Brain Male or Female this week I saw that oxytocin, the honeymoon hormone which increases the level of trust when in love, only impacts women. This was a surprise to me, because the numbers of men scammed is greater than women, though women report it more, according to the AARP article where they quote Monica Whitty’s 2008 book, Truth, Lies and Trust on the Internet. The article again quotes Whitty:
Computer-mediated relationships, she says, can be “hyperpersonal — more strong and intimate than physical relationships.” Because the parties are spared the distractions of face-to-face interaction, they can control how they present themselves, creating idealized avatars that command more trust and closeness than their true selves. “What happens is, you can see the written text and read it over and over again, and that makes it stronger,” she says.
It has always been the level of intimacy developed in a scam that I think is not well understood or believed by those who have not experienced a scam. The level of intimacy may have been made even more intense by cybersex, which can be used as a form of ‘consummation’ of the virtual marriage, and cement the achievement of the goal of ‘taking the brain’.
It is in the context of the intimacy developed during a scam, the ‘taking the brain’ that I come back to the issue of loved ones who are being scammed, and what family members can do about it. The victim when confronted may refuse to believe it is a scam and may be continuing to send money. There is no easy answer as to what to do, especially as unacknowledged feelings of shame and denial in the face of relative’s insistence that it is a scam may push the victim to take a stance of “its not a scam, its true love and you would not understand“, words given to them by the scammer, even more strongly. Again from the AARP article:
Shame, fear of ridicule and the victim’s own denial enforce this contract of silence. “Once people are invested in these , it’s extremely difficult to convince them they are not dealing with a real person,” says Steven Baker, director of the FTC’s Midwest Region [USA] and a leading expert on fraud. “People want to believe so bad.”
This family interaction is hard for everyone involved, and can lead to break-up between family members. It is quite different from the scenario in my post I think my friend is being scammed, where friends were discussed. Family relationships may be much more emotionally loaded. There are also more serious financial implication, as assets are sold, inheritances are given away, loans are taken out and the victim is left with less than nothing. The bewildered family may be left with the ongoing financial burden or at least the need to support the now destitute scam victim.
I am trying to think if there is anything more that could be done in these situations apart from what I suggested in my previous post. I think in these situations it is more important to contact the authorities, and see if you can get any involvement from them. Hopefully they would be tracking activity of scammers. I’m hypothesising that an interaction with an independent third party of authority may help.
Please add your own comments below if you have ideas about or success with any other tactics when confronted with a family member who is actively being scammed, so we can all learn from this experience. Contact me directly and I will post on your behalf if you require anonymity.
Finally, the article quotes our own Brian Hay, head of the fraud unit of the Queensland Police Service in Brisbane about the fraudsters:
Think romance fraud on an industrial scale. “The strongest drug in the world is love,” Hay says. “These bastards know that. And they’re brilliant at it.”
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.