Development of the online romance scam toolkits for the public sector

Lead Research Organisation: University of Leicester
Department Name: Media and Communication


This project focuses on the online dating romance scam. The scam is typically conducted via online dating sites and social networking sites. Scammers lure their victims by creating a profile with a stolen photograph of a highly attractive person. At a very early stage in the relationship the scammer declares their love for the victim and requests that their relationship move from the dating site to Instant Messenger, stating that they want an exclusive relationship with the victim. Phone calls might also be made. The scam often begins with requests for gifts or small amounts of money. Following this the scammer will accelerate their demands for larger amounts of money (sometimes this involves other characters being brought into the narrative, to make the scam appear more plausible and to find new ways to demand more money). This scam can also lead to persuading the victim to visit an African country where they might be kidnapped. The scam ends only when the victim learns and finally accepts they have been scammed.

When victims report this crime the local police are often unsure of how to deal with this it and do not comprehend the trauma the victim is enduring. To date, victims have not been treated differently to any other fraud case - the legal system does not recognise the stress they experience over and above that of financial loss. Given the lack of understanding of the trauma endured by these victims, there is some uncertainty as to how to treat victims of this crime. There is an urgent need to address this problem.

This project will draw on findings from work supported by an ESRC grant that has been investigating: the typology of victims, the persuasive techniques used by the scammers, and the psychological impact this crime has on victims.

Specifically, the three objectives of the current proposed project are to:
1. improve the quality of care for victims of the online romance scam.
2. decrease the likelihood of re-victimisation.
3. improve current policing practice with regards to dealing with victims of the online romance scam.

These objectives will be achieve through the development and evaluation of two toolkits:
1. to be used by UK police when dealing with romance scam victims.
2. on how to treat these victims as intimidated witnesses in subsequent prosecutions

Work package 1 will create and evaluate a toolkit that will provide information (in a multi-media format) on how to best notify victims, take statements, advise victims to act if they are contacted again, and to ensure that victims are provided with appropriate support.

Work package 2 will develop a tool kit that will provide information on how to treat witnesses of the online dating romance scam. Again, an evaluation of this toolkit will be made which will involve interviewing police officers that have used the kit as well as interviewing witnesses.

The beneficiaries of the project include:
1. Victims of the online romance scam
2. Our partners: SOCA, NPIA
4. UK police forces
5. Anyone in the UK who has been affected by this crime (including victims and their families, friends)
6. Government and communication regulators and policy makers.
7. International partners who might consider adopting the innovative practices implemented in this project
8. Victim Support, psychologists, counsellors and other health professionals would benefit from learning more about the psychological effect such scams have on an individual.

We intend to disseminate the results via the following routes:
- at a seminar (with invited parties in addition to our partners, such as police, Victim Support and counsellors),
- to the International Mass Marketing Fraud Working Group
- at policing conferences both in the UK and internationally
- direct delivery of toolkits to the police via NPIA
- in police and counselling professional publications
- in academic publications
- report to the ESRC
- to the media
- web page

Planned Impact

The activities proposed here will have important economic, social and policy/practice impacts. The economic impact will be: reducing the amount of money scammed from the individual (to avoid re-victimisation). Another important economic impact will be that implementation of these toolkits will provide SOCA officers with more time to spend on catching and convicting perpetrators of the romance scam rather than dealing with the consequences (hopefully leading to a reduction in the amount of people being scammed and thereby being of benefit to the nation's wealth). Social impacts will be providing an improved level of care to UK victims of this crime (thereby leading to improved psychological health). The policy and practice impacts are the implementation of new policy in police forces to change the way they currently deal with victims of the romance scam. The benefits of the project should realistically begin to be noticeable by the final month of the project. Details of the groups we anticipate will benefit from the project include:

Victims of the romance scam (and family and friends of the victim): will benefit from improved psychological health from receiving a greater level of care at all levels, from reporting the crime, to taking statements and acting as witnesses. Moreover, they should benefit from the prevention strategies we devise to avoid re-victimisation. These toolkits should improve their overall quality of life.

SOCA (Serious Organised Crime Agency): At present SOCA are dealing more with this crime than the police force. This is because of their expertise in the area and the lack of knowledge of the police force. Implementation of these toolkits will improve the level of care SOCA officers provide victims. However, the project intends to also provide the police force with toolkits so that they can take on more of the work with regards to dealing with the victims. Shifting the work to the police will provide SOCA officers with more time to spend on catching and convicting perpetrators of this scam, rather than dealing with the aftermath of the crime. We note here that in December 2013 the NCA (National Crime Agency) will replace SOCA. This does not affect our project, other than to increase the importance of documenting and passing on SOCA's expertise around this crime in the form of the toolkits we are developing.

NPIA (National Policing Improvement Agency): whose remit is to improve policing across the UK will obviously benefit from this project. The toolkits we provide are in line with their remit. The NPIA are due to be phased out in 2012; however, this will not affect our project, as they will still provide support for our work in their new form under the NCA.

Police force in the UK: The toolkits will be of great use to the police force. The project intends to provide them with greater insights into the psychology of the crime and assist them in learning how to best notify victims of this scam, take statements, advise victims to act if they are contacted again, and to ensure that victims are provided with appropriate support. Moreover, learning better ways to treat witnesses involved with this crime can potentially lead to greater confidence in gaining convictions. They should begin to start noticing the benefits by the final month of the project.

ACPO (the Association of Chief Police Officers): whose remit is to provide a professional forum to share ideas and best practice, co-ordinate resources and help deliver effective policing which keeps the public safe will obvious benefit from these toolkits. SOCA will ensure that the project results are disseminated to this group.

Victim Support, psychologists, counsellors and other health professionals: would benefit from learning more about the psychological effect such scams have on an individual and can draw from the toolkits we devise. This should lead to improved support for victims of this crime.


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Monica Whitty (Author) (2013) Online Dating Romance Scam

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Monica Whitty (Author) (2012) True romance? in Police Professional

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Monica Whitty (Author) (2013) The Online Dating Romance Scam

Description Our findings have been used to improve and change law enforcement practice both in the UK and Internationally. It has been used in court -- to influence how victims should be treated and in sentencing. It has influenced academic thinking in this field.
First Year Of Impact 2011
Sector Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Education,Security and Diplomacy
Impact Types Cultural,Societal,Economic

Description DAPM: Detecting and Preventing Mass-Marketing Fraud (MMF)
Amount £1,063,851 (GBP)
Funding ID EP/N028112/1 
Organisation Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 06/2016 
End 11/2018
Description London City Police: Workshop on online dating romance scam 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Prof Whitty ran 2 workshops for a fraud training course run by the City of London Police. These were held on the 5th Feb and 20th June. These workshops disseminate the types of training used in the toolkits developed for this project.

This workshop added to the police people's knowledge to improve policing practices.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2012
Description visit to ACCC in Australia 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact Summarised the romance scam research together with more recent research to the ACCC in Australia. This body develops legislation and policy around regulation and ensures these are adhered to. The work helped shape future policy and legislation. Online dating companies were also invited to attend by the ACCC so they could be part of the discussion on how they should/might be made responsible for the prevention of this crime. Law enforcement officers from the different states participated via video link and we discussed possible interventions based on this research.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015