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Tools and Tricks Romance Scammers Use to Manipulate Victims

Anna Rowe talks about romance scam methods and how scammers manipulate their targets.

As technology has changed from postal mail to phone to fax to email, scammers’ tools have changed, too. And the recent rise of sophisticated AI apps that anyone can use has made their job even easier. Romance scams especially have taken advantage of this technology. And that means that the old ways of spotting scammers often don’t work. Learn about current romance scam methods, how scammers manipulate their targets, and what you can do to spot a scam before you get caught.


See Next Gen Romance Scams with Anna Rowe for a complete transcript of the Easy Prey podcast episode.

Anna Rowe is a single mom and a primary school teacher. But after a devastating experience being catfished, she became a subject matter expert in both romance fraud and victim support. She is the founder of Catch the Catfish, which aims to help people spot romance scam methods and provide support for victims. She is also co-founder of LoveSaid, a fraud center and think tank that works to prevent fraud and support and empower victims.

Anna’s Story of Romance Fraud

In 2015, Anna met a man on Tinder. In many respects, her story is different from typical. Her scammer used his real face. He met her in person, and he never asked for money. His motivation was sexual instead of financial. But he was leading a double life with a fake identity, a separate phone number, and a full set of fake social media.

Anna was with him for fourteen months, and he used all kinds of romance scam methods to manipulate her and keep her hooked. It finally fell apart just after Brexit happened. He had said he worked in legal for the aviation industry, which is one of the few truths he told her. Because of Brexit, he was incredibly busy, and Anna hadn’t seen him in person for a while. His hold over her started to dwindle, and she got a gut feeling again. She’d had the gut feeling occasionally through their whole relationship that something wasn’t right, but she ignored it. This time, she listened.

Anna set up her Tinder profile again. She swapped out her profile photo for a stock image, but it still showed her same name, age, and location. She entered the same search parameters she’d used before. Within twenty swipes, she found him again. It felt like the world dropped out from under her. She asked him to call her, and when he did, she asked why he was still on Tinder. But she had just read an article about people getting in trouble because they thought deleting Tinder from their phone deleted their account. So when he promised he had deleted the app when they started dating, she believed him.

The Lies Exposed

After that call, he went radio silent for two days, which was unusual. Eventually, Anna went to look at Tinder again, and as soon as she logged back in, she got a notification that she had a new match and a new message. At first, she was confused. She hadn’t noticed that she’d swiped on his profile when she pulled it up. And he had matched with her again. Even more shocking, he sent this “new match” the exact same message he’d sent her over a year ago when they first matched.

She started chatting with him and realized that he didn’t even recognize it was her. But unlike their previous conversation, he was moving much quicker. Last time, they had messaged through Tinder for about three weeks. This time, he wanted her number right away. She didn’t have a spare number, so she told him she’d think about it. The next day, she borrowed her dad’s phone, set up WhatsApp, and messaged him from that.

She sat there with her phone and her dad’s phone carrying on two different conversations with him. The conversations that they’d had on the phone over three months, he was sending in shortened versions with voice notes to his “new” match. Anna’s world was falling apart. She could only keep up the two conversations for an hour. On WhatsApp, he was asking for photos. She sent the photos on her phone, along with an image that said, “If people got paid for lying, I know some people who would be millionaires.” He blocked her.

Finding the Scammer

At first, Anna just thought she’d been played by a cheating boyfriend. But a couple days later, she read about reverse image searches and decided to try with his photos. Most of them didn’t come up with any matches. Except for one. He’d always joked that it was really old. When Anna put it through reverse image search, it came up as a Bollywood actor.

That was unexpected. She did some research on the actor and discovered some of the things about the actor’s childhood and past, her fraudster had used and his story. He’d said he worked in legal, so she tried to look him up in the UK soliciter’s rolls and couldn’t find him. He said that he was born in a certain place, so she looked up the birth records. Nothing.

Finally, she decided to try a new method. She knew he drove through a particular tunnel on the way home, because when they were on the phone he’d warn her that the signal would probably cut out. So she drove towards that tunnel. Right before it, there was a signpost for a small airport. She hadn’t know it was there. She drove into the airport, and right in front of her was a car with a license plate identical to his except for the last number. About five minutes later, he walked out of the office for a smoke break.

She went home and looked up the airport on LinkedIn. In the list of employees, there was one without a photo. But she recognized the name. He’d lengthened his first name and shortened his last on Tinder, but it was a unique name and she knew it was him. The single corporate photo that came up when she searched his real name confirmed it.

The Aftermath of the Scam

Once she had his real name, Anna quickly found out that he was married and had several children. She later found out that over the course of his relationship, he was also with five other women, including his wife. And he’d been doing this for over twelve year. So far, she is aware of seventeen victims going back as far as 2007.

She went to the police, and they didn’t care. She discovered other victims and went back to the police, and they still didn’t care. Finally, she went public with her story to petition to have the laws clarified around what he was doing. As a lawyer said, how can you have genuine informed consent when someone is deceiving you this much? The case is still open, seven years later.

The whole experience led Anna to become suicidal. She went to a therapist, and the therapist suggested she research narcissists and psychopaths. That’s where her healing started. Her biggest problem was that she didn’t understand how he’d gotten her so hooked. Reading about other people’s experiences and how these people work, with romance scam methods and domestic abuse, helped her. She wanted somewhere to put all the information she was learning, so she founded Catch the Catfish. Soon, people who had been victims of similar crimes started sharing their stories or asking if something was suspicious. She’s now at the point where she’s helping 75-100 victims a week. Romance scams are a very misunderstood crime, and she wants to help provide support.

The Spectrum of Scams

There’s a huge spectrum when it comes to romance scam and other scam methods. It’s evolved from the classic pen pal and Nigerian Prince-style scams. Email let scammers operate on a larger scale. Social media and dating platforms opened the doors again. Fraud has evolved from there. Romance scams, pet scams, job scams, they’re all the same fraudsters.

Often these scams are perpetrated by “Yahoo Boys” out of West Africa. But we’re also starting to see more scams out of Southeast Asia, especially “pig butchering,” which combines romance scam methods with investment scams. What’s even more tragic is that the people actually perpetrating these scams are often trafficked into it.

With romance scam methods in particular, they may even use their victims to launder money. The scammer builds things into their story that makes it easy for victims to believe them. For some reason, they need the victim to receive some money and send it somewhere else. They’ll use victims to do lots of other things, too. Whatever they can get out of victims, even if it’s just getting them to move some money or open a bank account, they will use.

They like using victims to do lots of other things … anything that they need. It’s that organized and it’s quite frightening.

Anna Rowe

AI in Romance Scam Methods

AI lets scammers improve their game in a big way. The old way to alter images or make new ones was through Photoshop. That can be a problem unless you’re really good at it. There were some scammers who made Photoshopping for other scammers their entire job. But now with AI, it’s cheap and nearly instant to modify or create an image it would take hours to do in Photoshop.

AI tools make romance scam methods easier.

There’s even software that will let you blend one face onto another face. If they have a particular face they want to replace, it can be seamless. Captain Thomas, a sea captain from Denmark, is a common image scammers like to use for scams. If they use his stolen pictures, they come up easily on a reverse image search. But if they blend his face with their own, it fools image search.

They can even do this face blending with video clips or have AI make a still image talk. Luckily for us, these animated images still can’t clone someone’s voice, and the AI sounds a little stilted and robotic. That’s often what catches these fakes. The voice doesn’t sound quite right, and that warns people. But voice cloning is a popular scammer tool all by itself. It’s used in “grandparent scams,” where the scammers clone someone’s voice and call their parent or grandparent saying they’re in trouble and need money. And a scammer only needs thirty seconds of a voice to clone it.

Exploring AI Methods

In her investigation into romance scam methods, Anna explored some of the AI apps that are available. She wanted to see if any of them were good quality and how the quality was compared to the cost. One of her friends lent her photos and voice to the experiment. And it was terrifying how good some of them were.

Some of them had a lot of background noise behind the voice that wasn’t normal. But some put breaths in each sentence. One even added “um” and “er” and a lot of intonation. It was, frankly, frightening to see how well the AI could mimic her friend.

[Scammers] themselves can be really convincing.

Anna Rowe

Scammers have largely moved away from using multiple cameras and pre-recorded video to create deceptive video calls. With these AI tools, they don’t need them. They can just sit there staring at the camera and the AI can superimpose an image over their face. And even if the tool isn’t enough, the scammers have other tricks to be convincing. If they have a fake video but not the fake audio, they can put a reconnecting sign over the video and pretend there’s a problem with the signal and the audio. Many people find that convincing because even if they couldn’t hear them, they could see them.

Romance Scam Methods to Watch For

Just a few years ago, the best advice to spot a scammer was to ask them to get on a video call. A video call would show you if they weren’t who they said they were, and if they always had excuses why they couldn’t, it was fishy. Now, just because you see them in a video doesn’t mean they’re real.

But there are some things you can watch out for to spot if something is off. There are still limitations of the AI software. And there are also common stories that get repeated over and over in romance scam methods. The key is to look for the warning signs before you get emotionally involved. The more you like the person you think you’re talking to, the more likely you are to overlook the red flags. It’s best to check out the person and their profile when you first get a request or message.

There are things before you get involved that you can do … to check on a profile.

Anna Rowe

What to Watch for on Video Calls

AI’s ability to make someone look like someone else on live video is improving fast. In the past, putting your hand in front of your body would block the AI, but that doesn’t happen anymore. The AI also doesn’t have trouble with people putting glasses on or taking them off. But it still has some limitations.

If someone is using AI to change their face and they open their mouth wide, the inside won’t look like the inside of a mouth. It will look weird and distorted. AI also has a lot of trouble with profile views. If the person turns their head to the side, the image will distort and look weird. Side-to-side movement also confuses the AI and distorts the image. Distortion or anything looking weird when someone moves in any of those ways is a sign that they’re using AI to change their face.

Beware Particular Professions

One of the more well-known romance scam methods is that the scammer will pretend to be part of a particular profession. A military service member is a popular one. Doctors and investment board members are other common professions in romance scams. Many people are attracted to the money those careers imply. Oil rig workers are also popular. Anna has also heard about romance scammers pretending to be construction workers, architects, engineers, and contractors.

The thing that all these careers have in common is that there’s a bit of an air of mystery about them. If you don’t do that work or know someone who does, you probably don’t know what’s normal and what isn’t in those fields. They all sound at least somewhat important. And especially if your doctor, architect, or contractor is working overseas, they all make great excuses not to meet you in person.

Scammers will absolutely exploit the unknown in any reason that they can.

Anna Rowe

If you know how any of these professions work, you’ll know that their stories are ridiculous. For oil rig workers, for example, the scammers may say they’re on the rig for a year. In reality, they spend at most three weeks on the rig, and then are back on shore for an equal amount of time. Transport to the rig and medical care and food on the rig are provided by the company. And they have some of the best wifi there is. Same with the military – their government provides everything they need, and they earn holidays like a regular job. Once the air of mystery is gone, you’ll find that all of their excuses are fake.

Watch Out for Widowed or Divorced Stories

Obviously not everyone on a dating site claiming to be widowed or divorced is a scammer. But watch out for particular stories that are part of romance scam methods. The old wisdom used to be the 4 Cs, and now it’s the 5 Cs. Scammers love to claim their spouse died in Childbirth, of Cancer, in a Car crash, or they Cheated, and now they’ve added the fifth C, dying of Covid.

One of the most common romance scam methods is a tragic backstory that leaves them all alone.

In addition to their spouse being dead or a cheater, they often claim they have no other relatives, or sometimes a single elderly relative. Frequently, but not always, they claim to have a child. They use this isolation to build their reality around the victim. They tell the victim that they’re the only person they can trust because there’s nobody else in their life. The victim starts to feel responsible for the person and like they can’t leave or be suspicious or not send money because this poor person has no one else. Manipulation is a huge part of romance scam methods, and it comes into play in a big way here.

Be Suspicious of These Things on Social Media

There are a lot of warning signs on social media that someone might not be who they say they are. Start by looking at who they’re following. If everyone they’re following is the same gender, that’s a huge warning sign. Also look at who’s following them. When they first set up the accounts, algorithms push them to people nearby. If you find a bunch of people from a country that doesn’t match their story, that’s also a warning sign.

Sometimes scammers hack existing profiles instead of setting up new ones. You can sometimes spot this by scrolling back to the first post. Often it’s an anonymous photo – a quote or a landscape, for example – and then the rest of the posts are added more recently in batches. Also check the tagged section. Scammers often forget to look at who’s tagged their hacked account, and you may be able to identify that the person tagged and the person the profile claims to be aren’t the same.

On Facebook, look at what photos they’ve liked. Sometimes scammers forget which profile they’re on and like things that give them away. Also check what Facebook pages they’re following. Again, you may find things that don’t match. Finally, look at the URL in the address bar. The URL is set up with the original name, so if the account name has been changed, you’ll be able to see the original.

It’s Essential to Recognize the Feelings

There is scientific proof that when your brain gets the first hit of “love chemicals,” you stop looking at things logically. That’s what happened to Anna. Romance scam methods include a script that’s very powerful. And it’s not just scammers who use it – domestic abusers use it too. It starts with a rush of good feelings, but it happens fast and it consumes you. If you feel that in any relationship, something isn’t right, whether it’s because they’re a narcissist or an abuser or a scammer. They all use it because it works.

The relationship is really fast and it’s consuming … if you’re feeling like that in any kind of relationship, it’s a warning sign.

Anna Rowe

When this script engages, it switches you from logical mode to emotional mode. You’re less likely to see warning signs. The message Anna wants to put out now is to recognize the feelings rather than a list of things scammers do. Romance scam methods change all the time. All the warning signs we just talked about may be obsolete in a few years. But the feelings will always be the same.

It will start with an overwhelming rush of good anxiety, the butterflies at the beginning of a potential soul-mate relationship. Then they will put you on an emotional roller coaster. They put you in the middle of their world, then do things like disappear for a few days. It creates a trauma and makes you afraid, then they come back and you get another rush of good feelings. This is called trauma bonding, and it makes you feel even more connected to them.

Other Romance Scam Methods that Manipulate

Another romance scam method that they do to keep you hooked is invent a trauma in their life. That’s also where the ask comes in. Even though he didn’t want her money, Anna’s fraudster did this. He stood in front of her crying and claiming his mother had been diagnosed with cancer. He seemed distraught. If it had been true, it would have been devastating.

He did it specifically to keep her close and compliant. If they made plans and he decided he needed to bank out of them, he could now easily do it by saying his mom had taken a turn for the worse. It was a great excuse to keep her from pressuring him about anything.

These romance scam methods are always manipulative and premeditated. They create a situation where the victim feels almost responsible for making this okay for this person. It’s coercive and controlling.

Doing Better for Victims

Being a victim of a romance scam is a triple trauma. They are grieving the loss of a relationship, maybe a relationship like they’d never known before. They are also grieving the loss of a person they thought loved them, because that person never existed. And finally, there’s often a loss of money on top of that.

For victims, it’s like a triple trauma.

Anna Rowe

Most of the victims that come to Anna struggle most with the loss of trust. Not just trust in other people, but trust in themselves. When you’ve had your ethics, morals, and emotions manipulated so skillfully, trusting yourself again becomes the hardest part of recovery. That’s why it’s important for victims to talk to other victims and know they’re not alone and someone understands.

Anna also works with police officers to help them understand what victims have been through. So often when victims go to the police, they’re told it’s their fault and they shouldn’t have given their money away. It’s because they don’t understand how romance scam methods manipulate victims. It wasn’t given away, it was coerced. Helping police understand that manipulation will help victims who choose to go that route get justice.

Learn more about Anna Rowe and get more resources for spotting and recovering from romance fraud at Catch the Catfish’s website, catchthecatfish.com. You can also find even more resources and guides to help recover from the scam at LoveSaid’s website, lovesaid.org.

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