Oxytocin and a smooth talker are the drivers behind romance scams

Oxytocin and a smooth talker are the drivers behind romance scams
Embarrassment is a major deterrent for victims in reporting scammers. —Image from Foundry/pixabay.com

“Michelle” would have known it was one of the popular cons had she read more about it sooner, but “Perry” was one smooth operator. Waking up after half a sedative pill had sent her to la la land, she put two and two together. She’d fallen hook, line, and sinker for a romance scam, and she wanted to tell her story.

“It’s a way for me to move forward. I’ll talk and you write,” she said. 

Michelle’s story, the proximity of it, was chilling. Up until then, I had only read about strangers caught up in romance scams. (Inquirer.net reported on a Nigerian posing as Janifer Natalia, a Yemen-based US Army member, fleecing his Filipino victim of P400,000. Rappler wrote about Rod, who paid P60,000 in three payments to be able to collect a box sent by David, an American serviceman he met on Grindr. He realized it was a scam when he was asked for a fourth payment.)

That it happened to a woman I know to be level-headed was shocking and intriguing. What made her let her guard down?

Instant connection

Perry sent Michelle a friend request on IG, and she was circumspect in performing the requisite digging before accepting: Google reverse image search and checking other social media platforms. She also looked out for repeated questions throughout their chats, and there were none. (Repeat questions are clues that scammers are working with others, and signal that they are taking over a “shift.”) 

He had texted that he was an engineer for a utility gas company in Los Angeles—a difficult job, he said, but it paid well. His colleagues called him Perry, never Seojun Juwon. He was a paw parent to his only family in LA, Jack and Lucci, a pit bull and a Pomeranian, respectively, that he drove to a dog sitter before he went to work. He did the laundry or went to the gym on weekends. Coffee was breakfast. He was a Chelsea FC fan and his favorite color was the club’s signature royal blue. His mother was living in Jeju in a house he’d bought as a gift for raising him after his father’s passing.

He confessed to loving Michelle at first sight, but she’d brushed it aside, telling him he was simply overwhelmed at having someone to talk to.

To my raised eyebrow, Michelle quipped: “Nope, I didn’t, but he was interesting.”

“Didn’t you ever think that he was just too good to be true?” I asked. 

“Nothing stuck out as a red flag,” she retorted. 

Related: Trafficking Filipinos: Philippines becoming ‘incubator of scammers’

Michelle was done in by the chemical trio of oxytocin, serotonin, and dopamine, manipulated by smooth-talking Perry, which, “under the right conditions, work as a team to make us feel butterflies,” wrote Alexandra Owens in www.psycom.net. “Whenever we’re with someone who we’re attracted to…our brain releases dopamine, serotonin levels increase, and oxytocin is produced—you get that buzz love songs are talking about.” 

Dosed by love hormone 

romance scams
Both men and women fall victim to romance scams, but women are often targeted because of their perceived vulnerability. —Image from pixel2013/pixabay.com

Romance scammers are geniuses in softening their marks using “social engineering [by analyzing] what you post, what you like, your interests [and] use this information [to] gain your trust, and make you fall in love with them…,” Marni Marcos, former director of the Philippine National Police Anti-Cyber Crime Group (PNP-ACG), said in a Rappler interview. 

Perry was attentive and sweet, and had witty repartees. Michelle was oblivious of the oxytocin working its magic. The love hormone is released when people bond socially—i.e., talk—but new studies indicate that the bonding depends on the circumstances. It doesn’t always necessarily signify a willingness to bond or make people happier. 

“Oxytocin seems to act like a volume dial, turning up and amplifying brain activity related to whatever someone is already experiencing,” said Robert C. Froemke, PhD, a neuroscientist studying oxytocin at New York University, in an interview with Owens. 

Perry was apparently stellar in creating the right circumstances for emotional responses from Michelle, and “regulating pro-social behaviors [like] trust, empathy, positive memories, processing of bonding cues, and positive communications.” For example, he enthused over them having the same music preferences (no hard rock) and being animal lovers (Michelle liked cats). They laughed at their text errors: She’d typed “bed” instead of “bread” and he’d mistyped “cabbage” as “garbage” in a salad. 

The catalyst for Perry’s spell was the specific effect of oxytocin on women vis-a-vis men. Oxytocin in men, wrote Owens, “improves the ability to identify competitive relationships and navigate their fight or flight response.” In women, it’s the feeling of kinship that is heightened because of the higher levels of oxytocin. 

“The more we engage in these feel-good behaviors, the more oxytocin we get,” added Owens. 

Big business

romance scams

Romance scams are highly lucrative. In a February 2021 report, Emma Fletcher of the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) said US victims have lost $1.3 billion to romance scams over the past five years, “more than any other FTC fraud category, with [consumers losing] a record high of $547 million in 2021.” The median individual reported losses were at $2,400.

Fletcher, an FTC senior data researcher, hypothesized in a CNBC report that the pandemic “may have helped people to fuel the continued growth by attracting more people to online dating apps and social media.”

There was an increase in people paying scammers with gift cards like Google Play, Amazon, Steam, or iTunes, which are a popular mode of payment because they’re easy to find and buy in physical or digital form.

The FTC report also cited a growing trend in 2021 of romance scammers luring people into fraudulent investments. The scammers make their online victims believe they are successful investors, casually giving investment advice on cryptocurrency or foreign exchange trading. Both money and scammer disappear when the victims follow through with the advice. A total of $139 million in cryptocurrency was lost last year to romance scams, with the median individual reported loss at $9,770.

“Pig-butchering” scams, aka crypto-romance scams, is a new twist in the classic romance scams playing out in Southeast Asia with “headquarters” in Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar. They’re “run like companies, complete with promotions, bonuses, increments, and marketing departments,” and staffed with willing or duped scammers from China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, and Turkey, according to a two-part special report by channelnewsasia.com. The old romance scam is spiced up with investment schemes that allow the victims to receive profits from their initial investments, lending legitimacy to it. Actually, they’re prize pigs showered with love for months to get their money, then “butchered” when the money dries up. 

romance scams

Global Anti-scam Org (Gaso) said nearly 2,000 people from at least 46 countries particularly in the United States and Europe have lost $310 million in total since the organization’s formation in June 2021. But there might be a deficit in the figures because many victims fear being shamed or ridiculed, said Grace Yuen, Gaso media spokesperson. Its survey of 509 respondents revealed that 66% of the victims were women in their late 20s to early 30s—easy pickings because they aren’t “as sharp as men”—and 34% were men. The victims were from varied professions (i.e., architect, math professor, research scientist, aircraft mechanic, public servant, paralegal, engineer, etc.). Gaso was formed in response to the rise in pig-butchering scams outside of China. 

In the Philippines, National Bureau of Investigation Cybercrime Division chief Vic Lorenzo warned Filipinos of romance scams after a victim lost P17 million. “Cases of love scams began rising during the pandemic because nearly everyone was online. Most of the culprits are Filipinos,” he said in a CNN Philippines interview, highlighting that the local scammers copied from the Nigerian grifters’ playbook.

In a separate plnmedia.com report, the PNP had up to 100 cases of romance scams reported to it this year, but ACG said the number may be higher because the victims are ashamed to be named. 

A 2021 study by cybersecurity firm Kaspersky on the future of digital payments in Asia-Pacific showed that one in two, or 45%, of people surveyed in the Philippines and SEA, lost money to romance scams because the “social media platforms provided a critical connection for people,” the Manila Bulletin reported. 

The Baby Boomers and Silent Generation comprised 33% of the victims, with two in five losing from P255,000 to P510,000; Gen Z made up only 8 percent, losing over P510,000 to romance-related threats. 

The grift

Perry didn’t exhibit the top signs of a scammer. He didn’t work on an oil rig or in the military, and wasn’t a doctor with an international organization. Michelle parried his declaration of love earlier on. His IG showed clear selfies, and he never asked for money for hospital bills or emergencies.

He was just sending her a package containing shoes, which, when it “reached” the Philippines, was supposedly now filled with gadgets, cosmetics, accessories, and, much to Michelle’s consternation, $25,000. She called Perry for an explanation, but he didn’t take her calls. He clarified via text that the money was a surprise for her and reimbursement for the customs clearance fee, as well as payment for his hotel during his planned visit in November. 

The scammer finally surfaced: He gaslighted Michelle in subsequent texts, blaming her for ruining everything, not trusting him, and putting him in a bad mood. It was typical grifter behavior because “a romance scammer may pressure you to stop ‘being paranoid’ and urge you to trust them no matter what,” Lynn M. English, Lafayette Federal Credit Union’s senior vice president for risk management, said in the company website. 

Michelle hadn’t quite picked up on the scam yet because “FastDoor Standard Courier Systems” appeared legitimate with its tracking receipt and confirmation texts from an employee, “Bryan.” So she paid the “customs clearance fee” via online transfer to a personal bank account. Then Perry started sounding ridiculous in his texts, repeatedly advising her to be polite to the courier company for making it wait. Bryan also started badgering her to pay P95,000 for the “International Monetary Fund (IMF) certificate” supposedly needed to release the package. 

Reality check: The shipping company was a sham; its confirmation e-mail went straight to Michelle’s spam folder. The IMF cautioned against fraudulent schemes using its name on its website because it “doesn’t authorize, verify, monitor, or assist in contract or inheritance payments between third parties and/or Governments, or endorse the activities of any bank or other public or private agency.”  And the Manila-based Bureau of Customs accepted payment through e-wallet Maya (formerly PayMaya), which has been the norm for the past two years. 


romance scams
The end game of a romance scam is getting money. Reporting, blocking, and deleting are steps to stop it. —Image from geralt/pixabay.com

Realizing she’d been hoodwinked, Michelle unfollowed Perry and blocked the shipping company that same day. But Perry showed her how unrelenting scammers could be by sending a new friend request and calling her on IG the next day. She blocked and deleted Perry’s IG. Persistent, he sent a text through WhatsApp using a Nebraska number days later. She reported, blocked, and deleted the number. It’s been quiet ever since.

After a long radio silence Michelle texted her sad story. Going after Perry, for her, is futile because of the ignominy of it all, and the problem of establishing his identity. Scammers either impersonate someone or make up their online profiles using stolen pictures. It’s certainly one expensive lesson she’ll never forget.

I forwarded Lynn English’s words to Michelle: “…Perfectly intelligent people fall victim to scammers every day. There’s nothing to be ashamed of.”

A smiley emoji flashed on my phone screen.

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