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Seduction is a powerful tool, and in the wrong hands it can turn fatal. “Charmed to Death,” premiering Sunday, July 18 at 7/6c on Oxygen, provides chilling proof with true-life stories of people whose magnetism and shiny veneers became deadly weapons.
Dangerously charismatic criminals include a small-town serial seductress, a doting husband who seemed too good to be true (and was), and a handsome chef with the recipe for deception.
In advance of the debut of the gripping new series, we asked Dr. Joni Johnston, a forensic psychologist and author of “Serial Killers: 101 Questions True Crime Fans Ask,” to explore the dynamics and psychology of romance scams. Can anyone be taken in? Yes. Can they be deadly? Yes.
She also offers cautionary advice on the subject: “As a general rule of thumb,” she said, “the more we want something to be true, the more skeptical we need to be.”
Q: What makes women -- and men -- susceptible to romance scams?
A: What makes all of us more susceptible to a romance scam is not necessarily -- and not usually -- certain personality traits but being in a vulnerable situation. People who have lost a loved one, just gone through a divorce, just lost a job, moved to a different state -- all of these can make us more vulnerable to influence from other people.
Even a positive change can do this. It’s why cults so often target college students because they are in transition and less sure of themselves. It’s emotions and unmet needs that make us vulnerable to romance scams, not logic. It’s not how smart we are. It’s how successful we are at preventing our feelings from driving our decisions.
Q: Is age a variable? What else contributes to the dynamic?
A: Age plays a factor in a number of ways. From a practical viewpoint, romance scammers target people with money, and older people who’ve worked their whole lives and saved for retirement are more likely to have it. Social isolation and loneliness make just about anyone more vulnerable to manipulation and certainly you will find more widows and widowers over 60.
Q: Are women more susceptible than men?
A: That's a trickier question than it at first might appear. First of all, the majority of romance scammers are men, so women appear to be targeted more often. I think most studies suggest that more women report romance fraud. We know that romance fraud is vastly under-reported because, sadly, many victims feel embarrassed and humiliated. Most studies I’ve read suggest that more women are victimized; but there are statistics that suggest otherwise.
Q: In many romance scams, victims end up with broken hearts and drained bank accounts. But can they turn fatal, yes?
A: Rarely, but yes. An online romance scam led investigators to the discovery that 65-year-old Roxanne Reed, a North Carolina woman with serious financial problems, was, [police said], plotting to kill her 88-year-year old mother to get her money to pay money to pay a scammer. She was arrested and charged with felony conspiracy to commit murder. Relatives contacted police and said Reed was being scammed by someone using a fake identity and Reed was so caught up in the scheme that she sent texts to the online scammer that included details of how she planned to kill her mother.
The Mackenzie Leuck murder [is an example] of a new type of relationship scam -- the sugar daddy con. This happens when young women and/or men -- known as sugar babies -- visit websites that connect them with someone older (a sugar daddy or momma) who agrees to pay them in exchange for companionship (with or without sex). These “sugaring” websites have millions of users and are crawling with scammers, who pretend to be a sugar daddy or momma who will help pay off debts or college tuition or whatever. But it’s just a trick to get the young person’s credit card or bank information.
Q: Beyond the internet, face-to-face relationships have been built on nefarious scams, yes?
A: That’s definitely true. There are cases of “Black Widows” and “Blackbeards” who have gotten into relationships to bilk people out of money.
Q: Outsiders can read signs of a scam. Why can’t victims do that when it’s happening to them?
A: I suspect that one of the disconnects between what others see and what the victim sees is somewhat akin to domestic violence victims whose family and friends are outside the relationship looking in. No domestic violence victim intentionally enters into an abusive relationship. She gets into a good relationship that becomes abusive.
Romance scams are often a long-term play. They often spend months grooming their victims before asking for money. They’ve often set the stage for the money grab by introducing seemingly innocuous information at the beginning of the relationship that makes it easy and “makes sense” to the victim that the scammer would have a cash flow problem, need a loan, etc.
Q: Do romance scammers have tools of the trade?
A: Romance scammers are incredibly skilled at finding out what needs their target has, focusing on and amplifying that need, and then pretending to fill it. So, let’s say, for instance, that a woman's husband just died. She meets a romance scammer online pretending to be another single person looking for love. He finds out pretty quickly that his new love interest/intended victim lost her husband six months ago. He’ll not only sympathize with her, he’ll emphasize how hard that must be, how lonely she must feel, how nobody else can understand the pain she is feeling. Then he will proceed to listen for hours, and encourage her to open up.
Maybe we pay too much attention to the personality of the victim and not enough to the scammer. There’s a natural tendency to focus on the vulnerabilities of the victim (too trusting, we think, or too gullible) when perhaps we should be focusing on recognizing the personalities of the scammers and what they do that makes them so powerfully manipulative.
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