Confronting online dating scams: working with police and the industry
Submitting InstitutionUniversity of Leicester
Unit of AssessmentCommunication, Cultural and Media Studies, Library and Information Management
Summary Impact TypeLegal
Research Subject Area(s)
Studies In Human Society: Criminology
Law and Legal Studies: Law
Summary of the impact
Online dating scams have claimed an estimated 230,000 victims in the UK.
This study demonstrates how research by the Unit has substantially
increased understanding and public awareness of this relatively new and
under-reported crime, and helped the police and the online dating industry
to address it more effectively. The major beneficiaries of the research,
which has attracted international attention, have been:
- the police, nationally and internationally, through assistance,
training and advice received on combating the crime and supporting
- the victims, through improvement in the quality of support available to
- the public generally, through heightened awareness of the scam.
This research was the first significant academic work on a serious
mass-marketing fraud known as the Online Dating Romance Scam. This type of
fraud involves international, organised criminal gangs who target users of
dating websites and social networking sites, creating fake profiles and
trying to extract large sums of money from victims.
Professor Monica Whitty (University of Leicester from December 2010) was
the Principal Investigator on two ESRC projects. Professor T. Buchanan
(University of Westminster) was the co-investigator.
The first project included both quantitative and qualitative studies,
involving the surveying and interviewing of victims and conducting an
analysis of their online accounts. The principal findings and outcomes
a. The development of a model used to explain the stages and persuasive
techniques employed by criminals, which has important implications for
prevention of this crime (1);
b. The type of profile criminals created in order to attract victims had
important implications for prevention of this crime (1,2);
c. The strong attachment to the criminal formed by the victim made the
scam difficult to break and often led to re-victimisation (2, 6);
d. The psychological impact on both financial and non-financial victims
(e.g., suicidal feelings, post-traumatic stress) was considerable, due to
their attachment to the fake persona and the loss of money. This had
important implications for the treatment of victims and sentencing of
e. Some victims suffered sexual abuse, sometimes accompanied by
blackmail, which had important implications for the treatment of victims
f. Support for victims from family, friends and law enforcement officers
was often lacking, the blame attached to the victim being a contributory
g. Victims were inclined to transfer their affections from the criminal
to law enforcement officers with important implications for police
practice (3, 6);
h. Psychological variables predicted victimhood only to a limited extent
i. The previous assumptions of law enforcement about those most likely to
be targeted (older heterosexual women) were incorrect and other
demographic groups were found to be equally at risk (5, 6).
In July 2011, Professor Whitty, together with the Serious Organised Crime
Agency and Professor Buchanan ran a survey with YouGov (funded by the
University) to determine the national prevalence rates and public
awareness of the scam (3). This revealed that the prevalence rate was
approximately 230,000 in Great Britain, which was much higher than
originally thought. Action Fraud — the UK's national fraud and internet
crime reporting centre — had estimated 900 victims. The third project
(commencing December 2011), led by Whitty and with Buchanan, and in
conjunction with the Serious Organised Crime Agency, Northern Ireland
Police Authority, Association of Chief Police Officers and Buchanan,
involved the development and evaluation of training packages for the
police in the UK. This was funded by the ESRC as a follow-on grant
specifically intended to support "knowledge exchange and impact generating
activities from a specific piece of research". Findings from the previous
studies were incorporated into training packages designed to improve
`public protection' (see section 4).
References to the research
Whitty, M. T., & Buchanan, T. (December 2010-November 2011). An
examination of the online romance scam. Research project supported
by ESRC Award No.: RES-000-22-4022, £79,552.51
Whitty, M. T., & Buchanan, T. (December 2011-November 2012).
Development of the online romance scam toolkits for the public sector.
Follow-on project supported by ESRC Award No. ES/J010863/1, £77,544.81.
1. Whitty, M. T. (2013). The Scammers Persuasive Techniques Model:
Development of a stage model to explain the online dating romance scam. British
Journal of Criminology.
2. Whitty, M. T. (2013). Anatomy of the online dating romance
scam. Security Journal.
3. Whitty, M. T., & Buchanan, T. (2012). The Online Dating Romance
Scam: A Serious Crime. CyberPsychology, Behavior, and Social
Networking 15(3), 181-183.
5. Buchanan, T., & Whitty, M. T. (2013). The online dating romance
scam: Causes and consequences of victimhood. Psychology, Crime &
Details of the impact
As many as 200,000 people living in Britain may have fallen victim to
online romance scams — mass market fraud where criminals set up fake
identities using stolen photographs (often of models or army officers) —
and pretend to become romantically involved with their victim. At some
point during the `relationship' — which is often conducted via dating and
social networking sites — the fraudsters claim to be in urgent need of
money. Many scam victims have been persuaded to part with large sums
before their suspicions are aroused.
Law enforcement agencies believe that this type of crime often goes
unreported; usually because victims feel embarrassed at being duped and
sometimes because victims still hope the relationship might turn out to be
According to SOCA's [text removed for publication] Senior Manager for
Fraud Prevention, some victims "have lost nearly every penny they had,
been robbed of their self-respect, and in some cases, committed suicide
after being exploited, relentlessly, by these criminals''.
University of Leicester research has played a key role in work in
identifying the scale of this problem and developing effective strategies
for supporting victims and preventing the crime.
Training packages for the police (2011-2012): Findings from the
University's research were incorporated into police training packages
designed to improve `public protection' in areas such as Child Abuse,
Trafficking, Stalking and Fraud. First responders, CID and Fraud Academy
officers were also issued with guidelines — tested in a UK court case — on
how to treat victims of this particular crime.
London City Police National Fraud Course (2012 — ongoing): This
three-week intensive course trains groups of 30-50 police in how to deal
with fraud. In 2012 and 2013 Whitty presented her research in two training
sessions and provided suggestions on how police might better deal with
victims of online romance scams (e.g. by considering transference effect,
psychological impact and re-victimisation).
Co-operation with law enforcement bodies
Metropolitan Police Operation Podium (2012-2013): A criminal residing in
the UK was brought to trial and eventually pleaded guilty to conspiracy to
commit fraud by misrepresentation. Some 62 victims were identified
(including 18 women willing to assist police with prosecution), from
America, Canada and Trinidad and Tobago.
Using her project's findings, Whitty advised the Metropolitan Police on
how best to debrief the victims and gave on-going support for an
international prosecution. Victims were frequently in denial initially and
needed encouragement to accept that the relationship had been fraudulent,
as well as the support which their families could not always give.
Whitty advised on support agencies in the victims' countries, and alerted
police to the `transference effect'; an effect where a female victim
transfers the romantic feelings she had for the criminal on to the male
officer dealing with her case. In the light of Whitty's advice (and the
fact that transference among three victims had been going unrecognised by
police), a female family liaison officer was deployed to deal with these
victims. The judge's sentencing decision was informed by Whitty's report.
Ghana prosecution by the Serious Organised Crime Agency
(2011-ongoing): Whitty collaborated with SOCA in preparing victims
appearing in a dating scam court case in Ghana. The prosecution team draw
on the research's findings to refute defence arguments that the victims
were `mentally unstable' and therefore to blame.
Establishment of the Economic Crime Unit (for new National Crime
Agency) (2012): Whitty and three other UK academics provided
suggestions based on the research on appropriate priorities for the new
Economic Crime Unit established in 2013. Whitty suggested that the Unit
should investigate re-victimisation and the phenomenon of victims turning
to crime to recoup their losses.
International Mass Marketing Fraud Working Group (2011-ongoing):
This group consists of representatives of law enforcement agencies
worldwide (e.g., Serious Organised Crime Agency, FBI, Federal Trade
Authority, Secret Service, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Netherlands
Police, the Queensland Police, Ghanaian police and Nigerian Police). Its
members exchange information on mass marketing fraud and on strategies to
prevent it. Whitty is the only academic representative and has presented
her work to the group on several occasions. Her input has helped to
develop strategies on how to prevent online romance scams and support its
victims (for example, advising on the stages involved, prevention
messages, which victims need to be considered as vulnerable and on what
type of support victims need).
Breaking news to victims and providing support: SOCA and Devon and Cornwall
police (2012-2013): Research revealed that those individuals who have been
scammed often become repeat victims and lack the social support typically
available to victims of other crimes. SOCA initiated a trial to determine
the best way to break the news to potential victims and support those who
had fallen prey to the crime, once they had accepted they were victims. With
Whitty's help SOCA sent letters to 50 victims in one geographical area in
the hope of preventing them from sending money to the scammers. All victims
were encouraged to attend a meeting with SOCA, the police, Victim Support
and Whitty. The five who attended, along with close friends and carers, were
informed about the scam. A peer support group was formed and all but one of
the victims who attended the event continued sending money.
Raising public awareness and understanding
Whitty and [text removed for publication] have made several appearances
on radio and TV including BBC Breakfast, Today, The One Show and You've
Been Scammed). At one point, the findings made third spot on the BBC News
website and, surveys carried out by Whitty before and after the media
coverage, revealed that public awareness had significantly increased (48%
to 52% via television; 11%-15% via radio). Whitty receives approximately
two emails a week from victims thanking her for media appearances and for
helping to improve understanding of romance scams.
Sources to corroborate the impact
SOCA citing joint Leicester and SOCA research:
Action Fraud website (some of the points here were advised from our
ESRC (lists impacts for the first study):
Training packages for the police (2011-2012):
Source to corroborate claim: Senior Training Manager at College of
Metropolitan Police Operation Podium (2012-2013):
Source to corroborate claim: Detective Constable, Specialist Crime
Breaking news to victims and providing of support and Ghana
prosecution by the Serious Organised Crime Agency (2011-ongoing):
Senior Manager, Fraud, Intervention; Serious Organised Crime Agency
Establishment of the Economic Crime Unit (for new National Crime
Source to corroborate claim: Director of Interventions, UK National Fraud
Raising public awareness and understanding (2011):
Links to example media coverage can be found here:
London City Police National Fraud Course (2012-ongoing):
Source to corroborate claim: Senior Lecturer, Economic Crime and Fraud