Sue just lost her husband. They had a great 40-year marriage. Like most people, she had friends and family around to help her through the grief.
But as the weeks went on, people got back to their normal lives and Sue was left more and more on her own. Her loneliness continued to grow each day. She found herself on her Facebook page reminiscing about old times and memories of her late husband. She posted pictures of vacations they took, cars they bought, and other memories to help her feel not so alone.
Then one day, a message alert dings telling her someone is sending her a note. It reads something like, “I know you don’t know me, but I saw your posts just scrolling through Facebook, and like you. I lost my wife to cancer seven years ago. I just want you to know it gets easier, but it never goes away. Stay strong. — Bob”
What a beautiful message to receive from a complete stranger. Sue replies with a “thank you” and a heartfelt message of grief for this stranger and a lot of gratitude to have someone who “truly understands her.”
Bob and Sue develop a quick bond. They become internet friends and start to chat daily. Daily turns into multiple times a day, which quickly turns into a nonstop chat thread between the two. Bob tells Sue he is a hardworking widower living in Eastern Europe with dreams of coming to America and he has been saving his money to do just that. He tells her that when he gets to America, he is taking her out to dinner to thank her for helping him with his grief.
Sadly, Bob isn’t a real person. Well, he is, but his name isn’t Bob, and he is not a widower, and he certainly is not a hardworking honest person. He is running a romance scam.
Scammers look for recently widowed women or men and begin with friendly gestures. When a romance starts, the person requests financial help to come to visit. Those “visits” are often stopped by border control and can be solved with, you guessed it, more money.
In 2020, romance scams jumped by 50% to a staggering $304 million USD in the United States alone. Before you jump to the conclusion that only stupid people fall for this or grief is what made that person weak, let’s delve deeper into understanding why this works.
Romance Scams: Why Do They Work?
According to Dr. Helen Fisher from Rutgers University in her paper, “Lust, Attraction, and Attachment in Mammalian Reproduction” (1) she makes a connection in her research that helps us understand how romance scams can work.
She breaks down “love” into three categories — lust, attraction, and attachment and says that each of them has its own set of hormones that characterize them. Lust is linked to testosterone and estrogen. Attraction is linked to dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin. And attachment is linked to oxytocin and vasopressin.
Since most romance scams are not based on the promise of sex, lust doesn’t seem to play a role in them. Yet we can certainly see attraction and attachment playing a role. Dopamine is produced by the hypothalamus and is released to make us feel good. When dopamine is flowing, then we get a release of norepinephrine. Together, these chemicals give us energy, make us giddy, and can make us feel “lovesick.” Any of us who ever felt that way know that we can make some pretty rash decisions when feeling lovesick.
Now once these feelings move to the attachment phase, we see the chemical oxytocin, also produced by the hypothalamus and related to times we feel bonded and trust with someone. I write about this in my new book, Human Hacking: Win Friends, Influence People, and Leave Them Feeling Better for Having Met You. (2)
Dr. Fisher found that if we have too much dopamine, it can lead to irrational behavior and poor decision-making. This coincides with what Dr. Paul Zak found in his research that he published in his book, The Moral Molecule (3) about how oxytocin works. He found that when people feel trusted by another person, the brain releases oxytocin, and that attachment can create a bond of trust that becomes very strong.
The important takeaway here is that this is not related to someone being gullible, stupid, or having no critical thought — this is about someone being human and that humanness being exploited by a malicious person.
Ok, but Now What?
As one who studies human behavior, I get this question often: If this is just part of being human, then what can anyone do?
First, if one of your parents or relatives is the unfortunate victim of one of these scams, remind yourself to show empathy. Even if they lost considerable money. They most likely are feeling either very duped and foolish or they may still be bought into the lie completely. Either way, empathy and compassion can help them come back to their senses.
Also, most likely any money that has been given is lost forever and will not be returnable. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t report it. Try to avoid, out of emotion, jumping on the account and telling the scammer you know he is a scammer and making threats. See if you can get law enforcement to help you and if you do, it may just help someone else.
Lastly, be aware. Just as many learned the hard way, Nigerian kings wishing to transfer you millions of dollars don’t always turn out that way. (4) There are people out there that Joe Navarro noted in Dangerous Personalities (5) called “social predators.” Be aware they can target you, a friend, a family member, the lonely, and the desperate. Recognition of this reality is my first bit of advice.
For anyone young, vulnerable, or lonely: Make sure that you have friends you can confide in—allies who have your back and can give you guidance should you find yourself suddenly in a virtual relationship. Let others know of new events in your life so that they can share in your happiness but also act anchors to make sure everything seems right.
Stay safe out there.