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Myths, Misconceptions, and Misunderstandings about Romance Fraud

Beckly Holmes talks about romance fraud and what most people don't understand about it.

The media loves to sensationalize romance fraud and scams. Unfortunately, that leads to a lot of misconceptions and misunderstandings. Unless we’ve been a victim of one of these scams, many of us believe inaccurate or completely false things about them. And if we become victims, we discover that these misconceptions make finding support incredibly challenging. Debunking the myths helps victims, and it can also help us be more aware of romance fraud.


See Misunderstanding Victims of Romance Fraud with Becky Holmes for a complete transcript of the Easy Prey podcast episode.

Becky Holmes is the creator and voice behind the Twitter account Death to Spinach, where she wastes romance scammers’ time. In addition to her Twitter account, she recently released a book, Keanu Reeves Is Not In Love With You, that looks at various aspects of romance fraud and where we go wrong in dealing with it.

The Story of Death to Spinach

She started it while bored during coronavirus lockdowns. She set up a Twitter account, and immediately had a bunch of young and handsome soldiers, oil rig workers, and more messaging and saying how great she was. If just one had messaged, she might instead be talking now about being a victim. But because so many of them messaged, she knew something wasn’t right. She started coming up with insane things to see if she could get these scammers to break character. They never did. She became fascinated with their tactics and started posting the conversations on Twitter.

As an unintended consequence, victims of romance scams started messaging her. She became a sounding board to people who hadn’t told anyone else what had happened. She realized how misunderstood romance fraud really is. Even though it started as a way to entertain herself, Becky decided she could help make the truth about these scams better known. She now dedicates much of her time to debunking myths and correcting misunderstandings about this fraud.

Romance Fraudsters Keep Messaging

Becky never decided to talk to scammers. It was always the scammers who got in touch with her. Much of this is because she engaged with the first few who messaged her. Scammers keep what they call a “suckers list” – a list of people who may not have necessarily fallen for a scam, but who engaged with initial messages and seemed interested. They sell these lists to each other. So even if you haven’t sent them any more, they will keep passing your name and contact information around.

Once you engage with a romance fraudster, even if you haven’t sent them any money … your name goes on what they call a sucker’s list.

Becky Holmes

Becky spends all day chatting with these romance fraudsters, which means more and more of them message her. Her Twitter account is clearly dedicated to outing romance fraud. But the scammers work on volume. They target hundreds of people at one time, and they often don’t even look at your profile until you engage. It’s very similar to how they work on dating apps and sites. They will press “like” on every single profile, regardless of what that person is interested in, because they want as many people as possible to bite.

Defining Romance Fraud

Many people have an idea of what they think romance fraud or romance scams are. The victim meets the scammer through an app or website. They never meet in person, but the scammer convinces the victim that they are in love and in a real relationship. Then they ask for money. Of course the victim gives it, because they’re in love. And the scammer strings the victim along, getting them to send as much money as possible, until the victim figures out they’ve been scammed.

That is one type, and it’s not uncommon. But that’s not the only type. The Tinder Swindler was a romance fraudster, and not only did he meet his victims in person, he even lived with one of them for a time. That’s why Becky’s definition is much more broad. She defines romance fraud as a when a perpetrator starts a relationship with someone for fraudulent purposes.

Often that purpose is some kind of financial gain. It’s common for fraudsters to want victims to send them money, but they may also get into an in-person relationship to get the victim to pay their bills or their debts. But even though money is the most common element, it’s not the only motive. Becky knows someone who was a victim of romance fraud who never handed over any money. This particular victim was in a relationship with a man who was leading multiple lives with many different women. It was a fraudulent relationship because all of these women thought they were the only one. In this case, it wasn’t about money, it was about power.

What People Misunderstand About Romance Fraud

There are a lot of things people misunderstand or don’t know about romance fraud. One common one is who becomes victims. There are a lot of stereotypes about the victims of romance fraud. In the UK, where Becky lives, the common stereotype is that victims are lonely middle-aged women who have no self-respect and are so desperate for a man that they’re happy to give money away. It’s not a positive stereotype.

It’s also just not true. There are a lot of middle-aged women who are victims, sure. But there are also victims in their twenties, victims in their seventies, male victims, and victims of every racial group, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic class. Anyone can be a victim of romance fraud, and that fact is not very well understood.

Romance fraud can happen to anyone.

Another common stereotype is that it only happens to people of lower intelligence. And that’s not true either. CEOs, lawyers, businesspeople, entrepreneurs, smart people, highly educated people – all have been, and can be, victims.

The media wants to sensationalize these stories. They want to find someone prepared to be in the press, look disappointed in photos, and let them come out with a particular story that will get views and make the press money. But there’s much more to it than that. And Becky wants to help people understand the truth.

What We’re Getting Wrong in Helping Romance Fraud Victims

Becky can only speak for her own country, but in the UK, there is no victim support specifically for romance fraud. There are lots of not-for-profits that support victims in general, such as Victim Support and Citizens Advice Bureau. But the problem is that romance fraud is a very specific type of crime. There is a financial component to it, but it’s also very emotional, and needs a particular kind of handling and support that deals with both aspects. And there’s nothing like that right now.

We’re doing people a big disservice because we don’t deal with it.

Becky Holmes

The police don’t deal with it very well, either. When Becky first started working on her book, she thought she was going to be able to dispel the myth that these scammers are all abroad. But she found that a huge proportion of these scammers come from West Africa, especially Nigeria and Ghana, and Southeast Asia with “pig butchering” scams. UK police are under-resourced as it is. When they find out the perpetrator is overseas, they often dismiss the whole thing.

The Emotional Nature of the Crime

Much of the misunderstanding is around the nature of romance fraud as a crime. The police view it as purely financial. They don’t have the resources to go after someone in Ghana for $5,000, but they assume you’ll be able to recover from a $5,000 loss. But even if the victim can get some money back, which is very uncommon, much of the damage is in terms of the victim’s peace of mind.

Becky frequently says that victims of romance fraud consider the financial loss only the second-most damaging thing about the scam. The worst part was the emotional aspect. They feel horrible shame and guilt. It affects the way they view themselves, and they find it challenging to trust their own judgment. Many people she interviewed said they would give the money away again if they could just get back how they felt about themselves before the crime happened.

So many [victims] that I’ve interviewed have said that they would give the money away again if they could get back their feelings about themselves that they had before the crime.

Becky Holmes

Yes, there is a financial aspect. You’re losing financially, and some cases leave people broke. But someone takes away the future you thought you were going to have, as well. It’s not just financial impact – it’s often emotionally devastating. Victims blame themselves, feel shame and guilt, and often withdraw from friends and family because they don’t want to talk about it. And in many cases, that’s worse than the financial loss.

Changing the Language

We need to change the language around how we talk about scams and being a victim. Becky hates the phrase “falling for a scam.” What other crime do we talk about like that? We don’t say, “I fell for a burglary last night,” or “On my way home I fell for a mugging.” With these other crimes, the language we use puts the blame on the criminal. Even if you left your doors unlocked, no one should be walking in and stealing your TV.

But when we talk about scams and fraud, we say the victim “fell for it.” The very way the language works implies that they were in some way complicit, or that they walked into it. It suggests that it wouldn’t have happened if they were smarter or more aware. But it was a crime that happened to them. And responsibility for the crime always belongs to the criminal, not the victim.

This language continues the myth of romance fraud victims being a bumbling, stupid, or desperate fool who trips into a trap that the average person could have avoided. And it doesn’t happen like that. It’s often not a case of scammers messaging and immediately asking for money. They can spend weeks, months, or even years building up trust. And it can happen to anyone, no matter how smart or aware.

Becky’s Experience with Romance Fraud

Becky has never been a victim of the online types of romance fraud she writes about. But she has been a victim of a different type of romance fraud. She wrote about it in her book.

She met a man through a dating app, and they were very, very serious. He never asked for money. But over about a year, he managed to drain her bank account anyway. A debt would come in and he’d be extremely upset about it, so she’d pay it. Something needed done with the car, he’d talk about how upset he was and maybe cry a little, and she would pay for it. She ended up spending all her money on him.

Romance fraud uses coercive control.

When she looked back at the coercive control he had over her, she realized how similar it was to romance fraud. He never asked for money, but it was definitely what he wanted, and she handed it over. Coercive control is at the center of all types of romance fraud, and that’s what Becky experienced.

Coercive control is at the very center of any kind of romance fraud.

Becky Holmes

Fraudsters tie you in knots, isolate you from friends and family, gaslight you, and tell insane lies until you start to lose track of what’s true and what isn’t. It took years for Becky to realize what happened to her was a sophisticated scam. At one point, he told her a completely ridiculous lie. She didn’t believe it, but chose to brush it away because she didn’t want to believe the man she loved was a liar. Confirmation bias is huge in romance fraud – you see what you want to see and ignore the bits you don’t want to believe. That’s what happened to her.

Romance Fraud Manipulates Emotions

Romance fraud is difficult to deal with because it deals with the heart. Everyone wants to be loved and to love someone. Unlike many other types of crime, it’s hard to make someone involved in it see that a crime is happening because they don’t want to see it. They believe they’re in a relationship, so they stand up for their “partner.”

[It’s] much harder with romance fraud because you’re dealing with the heart.

Becky Holmes

The people Becky deals with on Twitter try to solidify the relationship quickly. Mostly they follow a similar pattern. For her, they tend to reach out on Twitter and Instagram. But for lots of people, they reach out on Facebook and even LinkedIn. They start by asking how you are, and as soon as you answer, they ask a lot of questions about you. One of those is usually if you’re married. If you say no, they’ve found what they want. They try to woo you with lots of questions about yourself, what you feel about things, even stuff like “What’s your favorite color?” They make you think they’re interested and get a little bit of romantic feeling going.

What to Know About Romance Fraud

Whenever anyone asks Becky about warning signs of romance scammers, the first thing she tells them is that they try to get you off the platform.As soon as the scammer thinks you’re interested, they try to get you off the original platform and onto something encrypted. They know their accounts could get reported and shut down on Facebook or Instagram, but if they can get you to another app where their account won’t get shut down they’ll have you forever.

WhatsApp is common, and so is Google Chat. Becky has also heard about another one called Viber, although she hasn’t used it herself. Anything where it’s encrypted, which means they can’t be traced and banned, is where they want to be. They know their accounts will probably be shut down, and they want a way to stay in contact with you before that.

Another thing to keep in mind is that scammers will message you through anything that has a messaging system. Online games are a common vector that many people don’t think of. There are many types of games where you play with other real people. Scammers will play something like online Scrabble and message their playing partners. They often say something like, “You’re good at this game, and I’d like to get to know you better.” When you respond, they can start the manipulation. Anything with a messaging option is a way for scammers to target you.

They are everywhere. Fraudsters are everywhere.

Becky Holmes

How to Help Victims of Romance Fraud

Helping victims can be tricky because it’s specific to what they need. Different people and different types of romance fraud need different things. But the one thing everybody needs is understanding and kindness. No one needs to be told they’re stupid, naive, or gullible, and no one needs to be told there’s nothing that can be done.

The one thing that everybody needs is understanding and kindness.

Becky Holmes

When victims report crime, they should be listened to. They should get a crime reference number or police report number from law enforcement. They should be directed to emotional support if they need it. More than anything, we should be looking out for our friends and family and not become a society where we turn our backs on people because we don’t understand the crime.

Many times people say that you just shouldn’t send money to people you don’t know, and it’s as simple as that. But nothing is simple when it comes to romance fraud because you’re talking about the heart. And when you’re in a relationship, whether it’s real or not, you feel like you do know that person. We need to change the language we use around victims of this fraud so they don’t feel like they’re being vilified or mocked.

How to Help Someone Currently Being Taken Advantage Of Through Romance Fraud

Helping someone currently experiencing romance fraud is challenging. You’d be getting in the middle of two people where one feels like they’re in love with the other. There’s a lot of similarity between what romance fraud victims go through and what victims of domestic violence go through. They are isolated, gaslit, and made to feel like it’s them and the scammer or abuser against the world.

Becky has been in that situation. She knows when friends said she needed to get rid of her manipulative partner, she felt they were being aggressive and backed away from them. She wanted to protect her partner.

But one of her friends said something different. She said she didn’t like it and didn’t think it was right, but it was up to Becky to make her own decisions. But she wasn’t going anywhere, and if something happened, she wanted Becky to tell her because she wanted to be there for her. Becky thinks that’s a good way to be. You can express that you think something’s off, but don’t keep bringing it up, and support them. The scammer is saying, “It’s you and me against the world. They don’t understand, or they’re jealous.” But if you go in and say, “I’m not going to say anything bad about your partner because I don’t know them, I just care about you and if anything happens, I’m here,” that’s a great way to support them.

Becky Holmes’ book, Keanu Reeves is Not In Love With You: The Murky World of Online Romance Fraud, is available wherever books are sold. You can also find her on Twitter @deathtospinach. Her inbox is open, whether you want to share what happened to you, vent about it, or share that someone pretending to be Keanu Reeves messaged you.

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