Beware Handsome Strangers: When Online Suitors Are Scammers

We warn our young children: don´t talk to strangers.  Yet in the virtual world in which we live, many people spend all day doing exactly that.  At what risk? 

We all know people who accept almost every Facebook friend request they get—thereby granting access to a virtual clearinghouse of information.  For many people, their Facebook wall is a virtual scrapbook; a play-by-play narration of their lives.  It is a place where they display everything from vocation to vacation, including where they live, and what they had for lunch (often including a picture).

If you are inclined to accept Facebook friend requests from people you don´t know, ask yourself why.  You would not open your front door if these people came knocking (I hope).  What is the difference?  Sure, distance matters in terms of immediate personal safety.  Yet the risk of compromising private data is very high given the sensitivity of information people post online. 

Stranger Danger

First, let us define stranger.  A stranger is someone you do not know.  Acquaintances, business contacts, even friends of friends are not necessarily strangers.  A stranger is someone you have never heard of, who reaches out saying he or she has viewed your profile and wants to “get to know you.”  You have no obligation to respond to such unsolicited communication.

Sure, it might be an innocent contact request.  If the request piques your interest, you can check out the sender´s profile, background, and any friends in common to learn more. 

Exercising this type of caution is time well spent.  Because research indicates that at least in the romantic context, inviting strangers into your life could cost you dearly both emotionally, and financially.

Cyber Scammers 

Monica T. Whitty, in ”The Scammers Persuasive Techniques Model” (2013), describes how inauthentic relationships are formed online in a romantic context.[i] She cites research to describe how relationships formed online can be hyperpersonal—more intimate than they would be if they were experienced in person.  She notes that the Internet facilitates strategic self-presentation to allow scammers to deceive the victims they target, who end up idealizing the scammers, whom they believe to be similar, and highly desirable.

Whitty describes the process through which criminals groom their victims before requesting money. She explains how these fraudsters meet victims on dating sites or other social media platforms, through profiles they have created using stolen photographs.  The criminals express their love early on in the relationship, and attempt to move the relationship from the dating site to other communication methods.

At some point, they request money. Whitty explains that victims, although some believe they will earn money themselves, appear to be motivated by achieving the relationship with the criminal, rather than by financial gain.

Here comes a huge red flag.  Unlike online daters seeking to move the relationship offline quickly, Whitty notes that many scammers using online dating sites claim to live abroad, thus creating more time to cultivate a closer relationship of trust online.  She explains that making the relationship part of the victim´s daily routine through regular communication sessions created a strong attachment, and allowed the criminal to market themselves as the ideal relational partner.

After they have put in the time bonding with their virtual partners, scammers begin to request money or other types of assistance.  Whitty explains how some scammers proceed to requests for money through a foot-in-the-door technique, asking victims for smaller gifts or amounts of money first, while others used a false crisis to ask for larger sums of money.

Cyber Sexual Abuse

Whitty notes that some cyber scammers, when a victim had no cash flow left to give to the perpetrator, progressed to sexual abuse.  She details how some asked victims to disrobe and masturbate in front of a webcam—which some victims did even though the visual communication was one way and they could not see the perpetrator, and how the resulting footage was sometimes used later for blackmail.

Don´t be Nice to Strangers

Most people communicating on line are good people, just like you.  There is no need to shut down your social media accounts.  Just exercise common sense.  Considering the risks involved in allowing strangers into your virtual world, analyze friend and connection requests before you accept. 

And if you have cultivated an online relationship with someone who is reluctant to meet in person but always seems to be facing some type of drama or financial distress, consider what benefit he or she might be seeking from you.

About the author:

Wendy Patrick, JD, PhD, is a career prosecutor and behavioral expert. She is the author of Red Flags: How to Spot Frenemies, Underminers, and Ruthless People (St. Martin´s Press), and co-author of the revised version of the New York Times bestseller Reading People (Random House). 

She lectures around the world on sexual assault prevention, relationships, social media security, and threat assessment, as an Association of Threat Assessment Professionals Certified Threat Manager. The opinions expressed in this column are her own. 

Find her at wendypatrickphd.com or @WendyPatrickPhD

Find a full listing of Dr. Patrick´s Psychology Today posts at http://ift.tt/2jd9smD

[i] Monica T. Whitty, ”The Scammers Persuasive Techniques Model: Development of a Stage Model to Explain the Online Dating Romance Scam,” Brit. J. Criminol. Vol. 53 (2013): 665-684.

http://ift.tt/2jgVsVK

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