Meeting you was a fake: investigating the increase in romance fraud during COVID-19

DOIhttps://doi.org/10.1108/JFC-02-2021-0042
Published date10 May 2021
Date10 May 2021
Pages460-475
Subject MatterAccounting & finance,Financial risk/company failure,Financial crime
AuthorDavid Buil-Gil,Yongyu Zeng
Meeting you was a fake:
investigating the increase in
romance fraud during COVID-19
David Buil-Gil and Yongyu Zeng
Department of Criminology, University of Manchester, Manchester, UK
Abstract
Purpose Romance fraudrefers to situations where an individual is deceived for f‌inancialgain by someone
with whom the victim perceivesto be in a romantic relationship. With the increase in internet use, the growth
in loneliness and the increasing engagement in online dating sites during COVID-19, opportunities for
romance fraud may have suffered an important increase. This paper aims to analyse changes in romance
fraud, lonelinessand internet use during the pandemic.
Design/methodology/approach Data about romance fraud reported to the police in the UK, and
survey data recorded by the Understanding Society longitudinal survey, are used to address our research
questions. Auto regressive integrated moving average (ARIMA) modelling is used to analyse whether
temporalchanges observed are an effect of social changes associated with lockdown and stay-at-homeorders.
Findings The analysis shows thatcyber-enabled romance fraud experienced a large increaseafter April
2020, which is greatly above any expected crime variation considering known pre-COVID trends. The
increase in romance fraud was more abrupt among young adults than older persons. The results also
indicate that only youngadults experienced a signif‌icant increase in loneliness, whileolder adults reported a
large increasein internet use during COVID.
Originality/value To the best of the authorsknowledge, this is a f‌irst-of-its-kind paper analysing the
effect of rapid social changes on a growing type of cyber-enabled fraud. It is likely that the growth in
romance fraudduring COVID is due to a combined effectof an increase in internet use and growing loneliness
rates experiencedby many people during the pandemic.
Keywords Loneliness, Cybercrime, Coronavirus, Lockdown, Dating fraud
Paper type Research paper
1. Introduction
Many have noted that isolation and loneliness experienced by certain population groups
increased during COVID-19 due to the far-reaching lockdown and social distancing orders
imposed by governments to control the spread of the virus (Hwang et al., 2020;Killgore et al.,
2020;Li and Wang, 2020;Loades et al.,2020), but far less have considered how the solitude and
sadnesssufferedbymanywasexploitedbycriminalsforf‌inancial prof‌it. As a consequence of
the growth of loneliness and lack of socialisation during the long-lasting pandemic, the internet
and social media became the main sources of social interaction for thousands (Kir
aly et al.,
2020), either as a means for basic connections with friends and family or as a way to meet new
people, and maybe even to foster romantic relationships. Dating websites reported record
numbers in online engagement during COVID-19 (Chin and Robison, 2020;Goldstein and
Flicker, 2020), and many users were experiencing social isolation and vulnerability due to
The authors would like to thank the City of London Police and UK Action Fraud for sharing the data
used in this study.
JFC
29,2
460
Journalof Financial Crime
Vol.29 No. 2, 2022
pp. 460-475
© Emerald Publishing Limited
1359-0790
DOI 10.1108/JFC-02-2021-0042
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available on Emerald Insight at:
https://www.emerald.com/insight/1359-0790.htm
stay-at-home orders, which became the ideal combination of factors for an extensive rise in
romance fraud (CIFAS, 2020).
In simple terms, romance fraud refers to situations where an individual is deceived for
f‌inancial gain by someone with whom the victim perceives to be in a romantic relationship
(Buchanan and Whitty, 2014;Cross et al., 2018). The UK Home Off‌ice Counting Rules for
Recorded Crime consider thatdating fraud exists when the intended victim is befriended on
the internet and eventually convinced to assist their new love f‌inancially by sending them
money for a variety of emotive reasons(HomeOff‌ice, 2020: 19). Romance fraud can also be
called dating fraudor relationshipfraudin some legal texts. This type of fraud is mostly
committed through online contexts such as dating apps and websites, social media and
email, but in some cases, it can alsotake place off‌line. To better understand the dynamics of
romance fraud, Whitty (2013) conducted a series of semi-structured interviews with 20
victims and identif‌ied the main stages of the crime script, which she named the
Scammers PersuasiveTechnique Model:
a potential victim is motivated to f‌ind his or her ideal partner;
the same person is presented with the ideal prof‌ile (e.g. physically attractive person,
in a professional job in the case of fake male prof‌iles or in a low-paying job in the
case of fake female prof‌iles) usually through an online dating platform or social
media;
the grooming process occurs, where the fraudster gains the victimsconf‌idence and
trust;
the string(i.e. the criminal initiates the f‌irst requests for money, usually small
quantities);
the scam continues and the fraudster continues asking for small amounts of money,
sometimes over long periods;
sexual abuse (i.e. when victims reveal they have no money left, the offender hypes
up the sexual connection and asks the victim to take off his or her clothes in front of
a webcam, which may later be used as blackmail to request a ransom payoff); and
re-victimisation, which can take several forms (e.g. the offender accepts the scam
but tells the victim that during the fraud process he or she felt genuinely in love, a
newromantic relationship with another scammer begins, or the same scammer
impersonates a law enforcement agency and asks for money to fund the
investigation).
Romance fraud is known to have devastating psychological effects on victims (i.e. increase
in stress and anxiety, and in some cases depression), in addition to the severe f‌inancial
effects (Carter, 2020;Cross et al., 2018). As fraudsters often reside in separate jurisdictions,
investigating and prosecuting romance fraud has been a challenge for law enforcement
agencies, and victims rarely recover the f‌inancial losses (Buchanan and Grant, 2001).
Moreover, while loneliness is known to be a major risk factor for romance fraud
victimisation, suffering such a crime may further increase victimssocial isolation and in
turn their vulnerabilityto be re-victimised.
While several off‌icial sources in the UK have indicated an increase in romance fraud
since March 2020 (Action Fraud, 2020;Garside, 2020), to our knowledge, no one has yet
presented an evaluation of the extent of suchan increase, and whether changes in romance
fraud can be attributed to COVID-relatedstay-at-home orders or such an increase is simply a
continuation of an upward trend observed before COVID. This paper presents preliminary
Romance fraud
during
COVID-19
461

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