Saturday, February 11, 2017

Rebecca Nicholson - The rise of dating scams reveals our endless capacity to hope

…..there’s an increasing number of people who make their fortunes out of romantic racketeering. A report on the Victoria Derbyshire programme this week revealed that in 2016, £39m was frittered away on a false promise of love. The UK’s national fraud and cyber crime reporting centre, Action Fraud, breaks down the figures into more than 350 scams a month, based on the reports it receives. Who knows how many other people are too ashamed to admit that they have been conned, particularly in an area so sensitive and fraught as this.

The stories are novel-worthy concoctions of loneliness and precision opportunism. One woman, a university professor, told the programme that she had lost £140,000 through a series of cons, all related to the same man, who first asked for money to support a business deal in South Africa, and then, in what could be the scene from a second-rate gangster movie, told her to go to Amsterdam to release money from a safety deposit box. It had gone so far that there were other people involved, playing parts of the story necessary to make it seem real. The average amount gambled away on these imagined futures is £10,000, but some have lost hundreds of thousands. One cannot begin to imagine the emotional cost.

Recently, a friend fell victim to an online scam, although not a love scam, after paying a substantial amount of money for a “bargain” trip of a lifetime, only to see the so-called holiday firm disappear once the cash had been transferred. It had seemed perfectly legitimate and above board: not too cheap to be absurd, but just enough of a deal to seem worth it, with all of the correct window-dressing to suppress any potential alarm bells. Although not insignificant, the money lost was not life-ruining, either, but still, it was a crushing experience for those involved. They worried that if they could fall for this, they might fall for anything, and felt stupid, and blamed themselves.

When you hear about these stories of being fooled, who do you blame? Some may feel that the victim was daft to be tricked in the first place, given the absurdity of some of the online fictions. It’s understandable and human, but it’s also not fair, and with time that gut reaction should subside for anyone with even a tiny sliver of compassion. Hope is open-hearted and loneliness is desperate, and a combination of these two can widen the cracks in anyone. That instinctive head-shaking is largely based on a fear that we might one day be swept up in something similar ourselves. Catfish, the documentary film that became a TV series, dealt with this kind of trickery on a weekly basis, where people in different states of the US would be in years-long online relationships, with supermodels, pop stars, pretty girls and handsome boys, only to become suspicious about abandoned plans to meet, aborted phone calls, that feeling that something wasn’t right. But that feeling was never enough to truly cancel out the hope.

There is an old episode of the This American Life podcast that emphasises just how powerful optimism can be. It tells the true story of Don Lowry, who set up a lonely hearts club business, in which men would pay to receive deeply personal love letters from women he called “angels”. The women were not real, but the “relationships” went on for years. Eventually, it grew beyond letters and many men lost a lot of money to their correspondents. Lowry was charged with mail fraud, conspiracy and money-laundering and went to prison for 10 years. A lot of the men who had been defrauded were angry. But incredibly, some defended Lowry, picketing the courtroom during his trial, even after they had realised they had spent years pouring their hearts out to him. Because the hope of love was better than not having love at all.

In the face of just how ruinous and inhuman love scams must be, how devastating the impact is, that is the parable I want to remember. Not because the promise of love, no matter how flimsy, is worth losing your life savings over, but because it shows that hope, one of the most important currencies we have in this era of alternative truths, can be so unbreakable that it can face anything, even as these modern bogeymen and women, who turn daydreams into nightmares, have the audacity to try to chip away at it.