• In 2020, reported losses from romance scams totaled $304 million.
  • Heartbroken victims reported losing not only their money, but also their dignity and the futures they’d envisioned with their loved ones.
  • You can take practical steps to protect yourself from romance scammers, like learning to identify the psychological biases these criminals typically exploit.
  • You should also be on the lookout for red flags like quick commitment, tragic stories, urgent deadlines, and, of course, the infamous gift card requests.

The sweet, charming, handsome ex-Marine you’ve been emailing and texting with for eight months has a family emergency and can’t make his flight to meet you for the first time. You’re crushed. You’d let yourself fall hard for this guy, and now it might be another few months before you can be together in person. But you sympathize with your Marine’s dramatic plight. His sister died suddenly, so now he has to cover the funeral costs, and school tuition for his motherless nieces and nephews, and he just can’t afford another plane ticket. “But wait,” you think. “Maybe I can help…”

White collar criminals use deception for financial gain. Red collar criminals use violence to cover up their white collar crimes. Pink collar criminals are usually women who commit low-level, embezzlement-type crimes (think of a mom abusing a PTA checkbook). But we need a new shade of collar to describe romance scammers, the cyber criminals who exploit love in order to steal money. Since RGB (red green blue) is the additive color model used to make all those pretty colors on the internet—where these predators meet their marks—I propose “RGB-collar crime”. R is for romance. G is for greed. And B, of course, is for broken hearts. 

These criminals are the dregs of society. They often leave their victim in anguish, reeling from a decimated bank account, the shocking loss of true love, and deep shame at being duped. RGB-collar criminals usually run long cons, grooming their victims for months or years. And business is booming. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) reports that these dedicated romance scammers stole $304 million in 2020, with a median loss of $2,500 per victim. Any con (confidence trick) manipulates human psychology, but preying on someone’s romantic feelings can have particularly devastating effects. Naturally, Thriveworks wants to keep you safe from harm. Here’s what’s lurking in the mind of a romance scammer—and our advice for protecting your emotional and financial assets. 

The Mind of a Romance Scammer

Romance scammers initiate relationships with their victims through online dating websites, social media sites, or professional networking accounts. They assume fake identities via stolen profile pictures and biographical details curated to appeal most to their chosen prey. They usually lure their victim off the site quickly, into email or text communication. It may only take them a few weeks to declare their everlasting love. Once they’ve established trust, they begin testing the waters with small requests. Then the monetary amounts grow, as they did in the case of the St. Louis woman who was recently duped out of $1.2 million by her online lover. 

RGB-collar criminals don’t meet their victims in person, maintaining a physical distance which may encourage antisocial behavior. These criminals might be narcissistic or sociopathic, believing that the rules don’t apply to them. Or they might be decent people who fall into a small scam, don’t get caught, and are then encouraged to up the stakes.  

Like many white collar criminals, romance scammers can stay emotionally removed from their victims because their con isn’t up close and personal. They’re not looking their victims in the eye. The crime may feel even more abstract because of the asynchronous nature of online communication. One person writes an email, and the recipient can respond at their leisure. Plus, the RBG-collar criminal gets to remain virtually anonymous, secure in the belief that their victim won’t discover their true identity.

But a person’s empathy deficit has to be pretty extreme to initiate an intimate relationship with someone—with all the personal disclosure and vulnerability that entails—in order to siphon money from their bank account. Romance scammers often work for professional crime syndicates who specialize in Advance Fee Frauds and other types of mass-marketing fraud (MMF). These are not good citizens.

The Mind of the Scammed

Romance scammers are patient, emotionally-intelligent, artful manipulators. They have to be extremely good at what they do in order to be successful. After all, who would immediately offer money to a stranger on the internet? That con takes craft. 

RGB-collar criminals know how to build long-term rapport, gain a victim’s trust, and put them into an emotional state where love can easily triumph over reason and logic. Afterward, many victims of romance scams are embarrassed or ashamed to admit they were bamboozled, but that silence just perpetuates the shame and encourages the criminals. You should always report these crimes to the FTC. 

Just about anyone can be taken in by a romance scam. That being said, studies have revealed a typical victim profile. An RGB-collar victim is often:

  • Female (though men are also vulnerable)
  • Middle-aged
  • Well-educated (perhaps to the point of overconfidence in their ability to see through scams)
  • More impulsive (meaning they score high on urgency and sensation-seeking personality measures)
  • More addictive in disposition

To deceive a victim into giving them money, a romance scammer uses dark persuasion techniques. These are extreme versions of common psychological tactics used by marketers—as well as peers—to influence people. But when these tactics are exploited for mischief and mind control, they quickly become coercive. For example, here’s how romance scammers weaponize four of Robert Cialdini’s famous principles of persuasion:

  • Similarity/liking: Since people are more inclined to like people who are similar to them, romance scammers can research your online presence, then literally build a complementary identity around your likes and dislikes. Plus they bombard you with praise in order to curry favor. You shouldn’t be flattered, exactly, but you definitely shouldn’t feel ashamed. Romance scams are hard to resist because they’re tailored to your specific tastes.
  • Reciprocity: People are more likely to feel indebted to someone else if that person does something for them first. For example, a romance scammer might send you a big check and only ask you to wire transfer some of the money back. (But naturally the check is fake.)   
  • Scarcity/urgency: People want things more when they’re less available. A romance scammer will often have urgent requests based on fantastical stories. For instance, “I need you to wire me this money in the next 10 minutes or my mother’s leg will be amputated!” The (time) scarcity principle can exploit a victim’s natural impulsivity.
  • Commitment/consistency: Since people like to be consistent, once they make a small commitment, they’re likely to make a bigger one. This is why romance scammers test the waters with small asks before proceeding to more significant asks. They induce major behavioral commitment via baby steps.

As in cult recruitment, romance scammers tend to hijack your emotions through love-bombing and sometimes even sleep deprivation (when you’re staying up all night to communicate with your lover in a different time zone). After the fact, victims may state that they felt “hypnotized” by these tactics. It’s not your fault that you’re not thinking straight. That’s the nature of the con. 

How to Protect Yourself from RGB-Collar Criminals

First, be aware of how these people operate. One researcher describes three tell-tale warning signs that someone is a romance scammer:

  1. Quick commitment. RGB-collar criminals tend to love-bomb and speak of the relationship as permanent within weeks of initial contact.
  2. Tragic stories. Romance scammers will often have dramatic backstories, or will postpone or cancel plans because of tragic events.
  3. Urgency. These criminals often profess to be on the verge of some terrible deadline or emergency. Only an immediate influx of money can save the situation.

Second, follow these practical guidelines:

  • Never send gift cards. There’s just no good reason anyone legitimate would ask you to send money via gift card
  • Never exchange cryptocurrency on the recommendation of your online lover. In the first seven months of 2021, the FBI reports victim losses of $133.5 million due to cryptocurrency-based romance scams.
  • Don’t set up a new bank account, even if it doesn’t contain your own money. Some romance scammers will try to move illegal funds through your new account, which makes you criminally liable for money laundering.
  • Consult your friends or family. If you’re not knowledgeable about an area like cryptocurrency or computers that your online lover claims to be an expert in, find someone who is.
  • Insist on video chats. It’s the next best thing to meeting in person, but the romance scammer will use every excuse in the book to avoid real-time video interactions. 
  • Don’t overshare on social media. This personal information can be used to groom you.
  • Don’t send compromising pictures or videos to your online lover. These could later be used to blackmail you for more money.
  • Try to disconnect emotion from your financial decision-making. 
  • Do an image search to avoid catfishing. You can easily copy and paste someone’s picture into the Google search bar to find out where it’s already been used on the Internet. It may turn out that your ex-Marine boyfriend who works on an offshore oil rig is a happily married father of three in Schenectady. (BTW unproven employment on an oil rig is usually a red flag.)

Lastly, if you’ve been scammed, report the crime, then grieve the loss. Try to extricate your emotional grief from your financial grief, and give them both the compassion they deserve. Seek emotional support from people you trust. Your attribution bias—blaming yourself—simply doesn’t reflect reality. This wasn’t your fault. You’re still intelligent and lovable even though a bad actor took advantage of your finest qualities. If you prefer an active coping style, keep in mind that the FBI is getting better and better at catching romance scammers. You can always put on your RBG (Ruth Bader Ginsberg) collar and take one of these losers to court.