- Romance scammers often succeed because victims want to believe they have found true love.
- More women than men fall for romance scams because they value love relationships more highly.
- Debunking false ideas of romantic love may help.
Is there anything more important than love? Yes, there is, but this essential quality can be forgotten in a culture that idolizes romantic love. I’ll reveal what I think is even more important than love after a brief introduction. To highlight the issues, let's look at why romance scams are so prevalent...and so effective.
Our Worship of Romantic Love
Starting with the story of Cinderella, women are taught to keep an eye out for Prince Charming so that they can live “happily ever after.” Maybe this is why many more women than men fall for romance scams. Psychologist Kelly Campbell, who has studied both victims and perpetrators of romance scams, explains that women are more likely to be victims because “compared to men, women are more relationally oriented, socialized toward caring for others, and desiring of the fairytale or dream romance.”
Not that love is unimportant. Love is a unique and wonderful feeling, a “many-splendored thing,” as the song says. When you fall in love, and love chemicals rush through your body and brain, you may feel an exciting “high” from the "love drug." Moreover, these feelings can help you bond with your future mate, according to Dr. Cortney S. Warren. Love for another person, or for humanity in general, can also prompt people to do generous and noble acts.
But the natural process of attraction has a dark side, as Warren points out: “In essence, falling in love is like being addicted to your lover. It’s just that when our relationships are going well, we don’t think of love addiction as a problem. In fact, it’s blissful! The problem emerges when you feel addicted to someone that’s unhealthy for you. So, although not a clinical diagnosis, love addiction is a term often used to describe a pattern of harmful symptoms that center around a current or former love interest that cause negative consequences to a person’s life.”
When Love Hurts
“Love addiction” seems to explain at least part of the problem for romance-scam victims. The song lyric “I’d do anything for your love” could be the theme song of many women who become swindled by romance scammers. Cases in point:
- An 81-year-old woman from a St. Louis suburb fell “in love” with an online scammer from Nigeria. Soon he threatened to withhold affection unless she sent him money. Eventually, she became his “money mule,” pawning cellphones and other devices and opening bank accounts so scammers could electronically deposit money from other victims. She is now featured in an FBI Public Service Announcement warning others about such schemes but still refers to the scammer as “my love.” Dreams die hard.
- Lest you think the woman above is an exceptional case, know that the FBI has launched a “Money Mule Initiative” in all 50 states to catch women who act on behalf of scammers. According to this article, 4750 enforcement actions have been taken against women who are collaborating with scammers, resulting in the recovery of $3.7 million and arrests or charges against 30 people.
- “The Tinder Swindler,” featured in the documentary by the same name and described here, defrauded a series of women out of about $10 million, operating from the dating app Tinder.
Who Is Vulnerable to a Con Artist?
As Dr. Joni Johnston points out in her post, “Think You Couldn’t Be Duped by a Con Artist? Think Again,” victims of such scams can be extremely intelligent. If they have unmet emotional needs, however, they are vulnerable. The wisdom of age does not protect some women either, judging by the many older women in the first two examples above.
But it would be unfair simply to blame the victims of romance scams. After all, con artists are master manipulators and even cross the line into downright abusive behavior. Many of them play the long game, creating situations and dramas that over time convince their victims that their contrived stories are real.
Women who fall for romance scams may be extreme examples of “love junkies.” But both women and men often stay connected with partners who display disturbing behaviors and character traits because "I love him."
The One Thing More Important Than Love
What could help us when we become victims of our own misplaced ideas about love? That question brings us back to the original one: “Is there anything more important than love?” If so, what is it?
The answer is personal integrity.
Personal integrity is based on two pillars: 1) self-respect and 2) being true to your values. Self-respect could include self-protection, survival, and self-care. Your values could include relationship values like being kind, trustworthy, and reliable, along with humane and moral values like honesty and fulfilling obligations. Committing to and acting on self-respect and values can restore a broken sense of self.
How would you know if your relationship is a threat to your personal integrity? Here are some giant red flags:
- Your “love” asks you to lie, steal, or cheat for him.
- Your “love” asks you to risk your own safety for him.
- He or she abuses you or another person physically, sexually, or verbally.
- He or she tries to control your actions, such as whom you can see, when you can see them, and so on.
Other ominous signs that your personal integrity might be at risk:
- You put your partner's wishes and comforts above your own on a regular basis.
- You find yourself saying “yes” to things, small and large, with which you are uncomfortable.
- You put up with rudeness from your partner or try to explain it away.
Unfortunately, many people believe that love means doing what the other person wants. “If you really loved me, you would do this for me,” is the threat, explicit or implied, not just of the con artist but of people in everyday partnerships.
Prevention can be your first line of defense against love scams. Experts suggest these rules of safety: Meet the person. Go slow in the relationship. Be aware of sympathy ploys, especially a request for money. Keep family and friends in the loop. (Other suggestions here.)
Education about good and bad relationships can begin in early childhood. Youngsters may benefit from the classic children's book, The Paper Bag Princess, which gently and humorously debunks the "Prince Charming" fantasy. After trying heroically to win the love of an ungrateful prince, the heroine concludes, "You look like a real prince, but you are a bum!"
Standing up for your values when someone is manipulating you is not easy. But acknowledging the problem is the first step toward solutions. Some problems could be “cured” with a good dose of assertiveness. Learning to say no is essential to maintaining your boundaries and being true to yourself and your values.
Since master manipulators know how to gaslight you—that is, convince you that you are the crazy one—finding support can also be key to extricating yourself from a romance scam. Seek out a therapist, a friend, a relative—anyone who is sensible and brave enough to confront you with the reality of your situation and help you find a better path.
To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.
© Meg Selig, 2022. All rights reserved.