The lucrative business of romance scams #nigeria | #nigeriascams | #lovescams

“The true con artist doesn’t force us to do anything; he makes us complicit in our own undoing. He doesn’t steal. We give.”

– Maria Konnikova, The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for It … Every Time

An age-old grift is flourishing on the internet: the romance scam. In general, the motive is the same as it has always been, to deceive and manipulate for money or other financial benefit. The targets of modern romance scams are often contacted through social media or dating apps.

An onslaught of attention and affection known as “love bombing” quickly establishes an intense emotional relationship, typically followed by requests 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 for obtaining material gain but the end goal. These are “catfishers”, who create a fictitious online personality and seek extended, intense, online relationships with their victims.

Lydia Abdelmalek is currently appealing against her sentence for six charges of stalking in an elaborate catfishing scam in which she presented herself as the Australian Home and Away actor Lincoln Lewis and the British actor Danny Mac, known for his role in Hollyoaks, among others. For nearly four years she used their photographs and voicemail to engage several women in online love affairs. She persuaded her victims to send intimate photographs and then threatened to disclose those images to their friends and families. One of these women took her own life in a state of what her father described as “utter despair”.

Another tragic case concerned Renae Marsden, whose “friend”, Camila Zeidan, created a fictitious young man, Brayden Spiteri, to cultivate an intense romantic relationship with Marsden, which culminated in wedding plans. This persona then abruptly terminated the relationship, without explanation, which devastated Marsden and led her to suicide.

A New South Wales coronial inquest in 2020 attributed her death to the elaborate deception and emotional manipulation perpetrated against her, but concluded that no state criminal offence had been committed.

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

By unwittingly contributing to their own exploitation, targets of romance scams often suffer more than the typical amount of self-blame and humiliation experienced by other victims of crime. And it isn’t helped by the fact that members of the community tend to find them partly responsible. Even therapists sometimes refer to the deception engaged in by both parties, pointing to vulnerabilities that make victims more susceptible to being exploited.

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, exert power and emotionally manipulate their victims – often work in helping professions. Abdelmalek was a youth worker at Barwon Prison.

Their motivations are diverse: revenge, the desire to exercise coercion and control over another, or simply to escape the limitations of their ordinary, corporeal existence. There seems to be an obsessive quality to their behaviour, and their online activity typically takes place over long periods.

Zeidan deceived Marsden for nearly two years, Abdelmalek engaged in her deceptions for four. And they often invest a massive amount of time and energy into the relationship. For instance, Zeidan and Marsden exchanged more than 11,000 text messages over three-and-a-half months in 2013.

The grifting may even continue after law enforcement is alerted; Abdelmalek continued to find new victims online while on bail for previous offences. All of which suggests that this type of impostor may be hard to deter.


How can we protect ourselves from these grifters? Most advice emphasises self-help: be prudent; don’t send money to someone you don’t know; if something seems too good to be true, it probably is; don’t trust a person who won’t meet you face-to-face, do a reverse image search of any photographs, and so on. The ubiquity of this advice implicitly recognises 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 $142 million being lost in Australia in 2021. While men more frequently report losing money, women lose larger amounts.

Kaye Ferguson, who was targeted twice by men on an online dating app in 2020, was ultimately arrested for stealing more than a million dollars from her employer, after emptying 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 assets. In addition to financial losses, victims often have their personal information and mental health compromised.

When a victim suffers financial loss, various criminal offences relating to obtaining money by deception can be relevant. Issuing threats to harm can also constitute a criminal offence. But pursuing an internet criminal can be a difficult matter, especially when they are in another state or outside Australia.

If there is no financial loss – as happened with Marsden – laws prohibiting cruel conduct can be difficult to find.

Abdelmalek was convicted of stalking following a sting operation organised by Victoria Police in collaboration with one of her victims. But her conviction only related to her conduct after she began threatening and harassing her victims. When the behaviour is simply emotionally manipulative and exploitative, as was the case with Zeidan, the situation is far less clear.

It is possible, although not certain, that some of this conduct could be captured by coercive control laws that are soon to be introduced in Queensland and New South Wales. Renae Marsden’s parents are seeking a new law that would expressly prohibit the type of emotional fraud that was perpetrated upon their daughter.

However, drafting such a law will be challenging. How are we to criminalise this exploitative behaviour without capturing the everyday deceptions carried out by ordinary people? Given that eight in 10 people lie about themselves on dating apps – men typically about their height and income, women their age and weight – any new law would have to be restricted to egregious behaviour.

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

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on
October 15, 2022 as “Rom-con artists”.

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