(Last Updated On: January 8, 2024)

Stockholm Syndrome – Getting Scam Victims To Break The Law

Understanding The Coercive Power Of Scam Manipulation And Control

Authors:
•  Vianey Gonzalez B.Sc(Psych) – Psychologist, Certified Deception Professional, Psychology Advisory Panel & Director of the Society of Citizens Against Relationship Scams Inc.
•  Tim McGuinness, Ph.D. – Anthropologist, Scientist, Director of the Society of Citizens Against Relationship Scams Inc.

Article Abstract

Romance scams, extend far beyond loss of trust and financial losses, often ensnaring victims in a web of emotional manipulation that can lead to criminal acts. Much like Stockholm syndrome, victims of romance scams experience intense psychological coercion, resulting in their coerced involvement in illegal activities for their fraudulent partners.

Scammers skillfully exploit vulnerabilities, gradually eroding victims’ judgment and fostering emotional dependence, blurring the line between genuine affection and manipulation. Victims, propelled by intense emotional attachment and misled by false promises, may unknowingly breach legal boundaries, from financial crimes to drug trafficking, at the behest of their online partners. Understanding the dynamics of manipulation in romance scams is crucial for providing support and intervention to help victims break free from the cycle of control and manipulation.

Stockholm Syndrome And The Dark Path of Romance Scams: How Victims Are Driven to Break the Law for Their Fraudulent Partners

In the scam victim’s world of romance scams, the emotional toll extends beyond financial loss. Victims, ensnared by cunning manipulators, can find themselves coerced into criminal activities. The deceptive web spun by these fraudsters often leads their targets down a perilous path, compelling them to cross legal boundaries in blind allegiance to their supposed romantic partners. They can lead to being a money mule to aid in money laundering (knowingly or unknowingly) or to other more significant crimes, such as embezzlement and theft.

Romance scams, often originating online, begin innocuously with charming conversations that swiftly deepen into seemingly genuine affection. However, behind these facades lie skilled manipulators who methodically groom their victims, gradually eroding their critical judgment and rational thinking.

Scam Victim Control Begins

As the emotional investment grows, so does the fraudster’s control over the victim’s emotions and decisions. These scammers deploy sophisticated psychological tactics, exploiting vulnerabilities and engendering an intense emotional dependency. Victims find themselves isolated, their sense of reality distorted by the fraudulent relationship.

The gradual erosion of boundaries leads to requests for financial assistance under various guises – medical emergencies, travel expenses, or investments. Victims, caught in the throes of emotional attachment, willingly oblige, often sacrificing their life savings or taking on significant debt to support their virtual partners.

In essence, scam victims will give away everything they have but in some cases they will go far beyond this and ‘knowingly’ break the law for their scammer controllers.

Stockholm Syndrome

Stockholm syndrome is a psychological phenomenon where hostages or victims develop a psychological bond with their captors or abusers. It’s named after a bank robbery in Stockholm, Sweden, where hostages developed empathy and positive feelings toward the perpetrators. This syndrome involves a complex interplay of fear, isolation, and a coping mechanism for survival. Typically, it is used in cases where there is or has been physical control of the victims.

In the context of romance scams, victims experience a similar level of psychological manipulation. Scammers employ various tactics, often over an extended period, to create emotional dependence and control over their victims. They begin by building rapport during the grooming stage, often portraying themselves as ideal romantic partners. Gradually, they enforce emotional control using techniques such as Amygdala Hijacks and isolate the victim from their social circle using Gaslighting, becoming their sole confidant and source of support.

These scammers instigate an intense emotional connection, fostering dependency and exploiting vulnerabilities. The victims, seeking emotional connection and validation, become deeply attached to the fraudster, blurring the lines between genuine affection and manipulation.

Similar to Stockholm syndrome, victims of romance scams often display defense mechanisms to cope with their situation. They may rationalize the scammer’s actions, defend their integrity, or refuse to acknowledge warning signs, clinging to the belief in the authenticity of the relationship.

Studies by researchers like Frank Ochberg and Mary Ann Dutton have explored the psychological mechanisms underlying Stockholm syndrome (see links below.) The trauma bond formed between victim and perpetrator involves a cycle of reward and punishment. Victims are intermittently subjected to both kindness and cruelty, reinforcing their dependence on the perpetrator. From a victim’s perspective it appears to be a highly manipulative romantic relationship, similar to what would be seen in relationships with a highly narcissistic partner – this is what victim usually describe as the red-flags they see.

In romance scams, the intermittent reinforcement of affection and promises from the scammer followed by requests for financial help or emotional manipulation mirrors this cycle. Victims become trapped, believing that complying with the scammer’s demands is necessary to maintain the relationship.

Understanding the dynamics of Stockholm syndrome in romance scams is crucial for providing support and intervention. Victims require empathy, support, and specialized assistance to break free from the emotional control exerted by the scammer. By recognizing these psychological mechanisms, authorities and support networks can offer victims the necessary tools and guidance for recovery and breaking free from the cycle of manipulation.

It is important to understand the distinction between ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ and what we at SCARS refer to as ‘Romance Scam Syndrome’ based upon our experience with over 9 million scam victims.

The Romance Scam Syndrome

The Slippery Slope of Deception

Romance scams typically unfold in stages, gradually eroding victims’ judgment and weaving a web of dependence. Scammers, posing as charming and devoted partners, bombard victims with affection (in the form of ‘love bombs’ or amygdala hijacks,) flattery, and promises of a future together. This emotional investment creates an incredibly powerful bond regardless of if the victim wanted it or not, making victims increasingly susceptible to the scammer’s requests.

The initial requests might seem harmless – perhaps transferring small sums of money for a child’s birthday present, temporary hardship, or sending personal documents for immigration paperwork, or some other purpose. Over time, however, the requests escalate. Victims, fearing the loss of their “soulmate,” might be coerced into:

  • Financial crimes: ‘Borrowing’ or stealing from family, friends, or employers to funnel cash to the scammer.
  • Identity theft: Providing stolen IDs or passports to facilitate the scammer’s activities.
  • Drug trafficking: Smuggling narcotics for the scammer’s “business ventures.” This was the case for our SCARS Board Member Sharron Armstrong.
  • Cybercrimes: Participating in illegal money laundering schemes.

Manipulation Tactics at Play

This descent into criminality is almost never conscious. Scammers employ a potent arsenal of manipulation tactics to maintain control and exploit their victims’ vulnerabilities.

  • Isolation: Cutting victims off from family and friends, making them reliant on the scammer for emotional support.
  • Gaslighting: Distorting reality and invalidating victims’ concerns, making them question their own judgment.
  • Threats and Intimidation: Fear tactics, including threats of physical harm or exposure of secrets, keep victims compliant.
  • Withholding Love: Scammers use shaming techniques to keep the victim focused on the importance of the relationship and obtaining deeper and deeper commitment from the victim.
  • Love Bombing (Amygdala Hijacks): Intense affection followed by emotional withdrawal, creating a cycle of dependence and fear of losing the scammer’s “love.”

Scam Victims Breaking the Law

However, the manipulation doesn’t stop at monetary exploitation. In a harrowing twist, fraudsters may pressure their victims into committing unlawful acts, leveraging emotional coercion and psychological control. Victims, blinded by their affection and misled by false promises, are enticed into activities that breach legal and ethical boundaries.

These requests can range from fraudulent financial transactions to more severe offenses like money laundering or embezzlement. Scammers cunningly exploit their victim’s trust and emotional vulnerability to manipulate them into circumventing the law on their behalf.

The tragic case of Sharon Ann Schmalzriedt from Wabasha, Minnesota, serves as a poignant example. Engaged in a romance scam, she allegedly embezzled over $3.75 million from a business and exploited a vulnerable adult, succumbing to the demands of an online paramour named Erik Lockwood. Driven by a deceptive relationship and a promise of repayment, Schmalzriedt, a trusted bookkeeper, funneled funds to Lockwood, betraying both the business’s trust and the vulnerable adult’s welfare. But there have been others (see links below in the MORE section.)

The Romance Scam Syndrome Effects

Victims of romance scams often face a complex array of emotions, oscillating between denial, shame, and loyalty to their fraudulent partners. The perpetrators, adept at exploiting these sentiments, wield them as weapons to manipulate their targets into unlawful actions, pushing them to the brink of criminality.

To counter such insidious schemes, awareness and education play pivotal roles. Empowering individuals with knowledge about the red flags and tactics used in romance scams can prevent them from falling prey to manipulative ploys. Establishing open dialogues and support networks can provide victims with the necessary resources to recognize coercion and seek help before succumbing to criminal demands.

Furthermore, law enforcement and support agencies must adopt nuanced approaches, focusing not just on penalizing victims who fall prey to manipulative tactics but also on offering guidance to support services such as those offered by SCARS and others (see support.AgainstScams.org.) Acknowledging the psychological entrapment victims face is crucial in providing effective interventions.

Breaking the Cycle of Control

The path to recovery for victims entangled in these dark relationships is long and arduous. Shame, self-blame, and fear of legal repercussions often keep them silent. However, seeking help is crucial. Resources like SCARS victim support groups, therapists specializing in trauma, legal aid organizations can offer guidance and legal assistance.

Here are some essential steps for victims and potential targets:

  • Recognize the Signs: Be wary of online love interests who demand money, favors, or personal information quickly.
  • Maintain Skepticism: Verify information, research online profiles, and share doubts with trusted individuals.
  • Set Boundaries: Refuse unreasonable requests and prioritize your own safety and well-being.
  • Seek Support: Don’t hesitate to reach out to friends, family, or professional help if you feel manipulated or pressured.
  • Seek Legal Advice: Remember that law enforcement is not there to give you legal advice, they are there to enforce the law. Victim who may have broken the law should get legal advice from a legal aid organization or a licensed attorney. But in all case, the victim must report the crime to the police to declare their innocence.

Romance scams are a stark reminder that love, unfortunately, can be weaponized. By understanding the manipulative tactics at play and recognizing the potential pitfalls, victims can better protect themselves and break free from the bonds of deception and escape the cycle of criminality.

Summary

Remember, the underbelly of romance scams goes far beyond monetary exploitation.

True love doesn’t demand sacrifices that violate your boundaries or lead you down a dark path. Potential or actual scam victims need to protect their heart and freedom, and never let online promises cloud their judgment in the face of real-world risks.

Victims, ensnared in these deceitful relationships, can find themselves coerced into illegal activities due to emotional manipulation and control. By fostering awareness, support networks, and compassionate interventions, they can combat this multifaceted scourge, offering victims a chance at recovery and justice.

SCARS Resources:

PLEASE NOTE: Psychology Clarification

The following specific modalities within the practice of psychology are restricted to psychologists appropriately trained in the use of such modalities:

  • Diagnosis: The diagnosis of mental, emotional, or brain disorders and related behaviors.
  • Psychoanalysis: Psychoanalysis is a type of therapy that focuses on helping individuals to understand and resolve unconscious conflicts.
  • Hypnosis: Hypnosis is a state of trance in which individuals are more susceptible to suggestion. It can be used to treat a variety of conditions, including anxiety, depression, and pain.
  • Biofeedback: Biofeedback is a type of therapy that teaches individuals to control their bodily functions, such as heart rate and blood pressure. It can be used to treat a variety of conditions, including stress, anxiety, and pain.
  • Behavioral analysis: Behavioral analysis is a type of therapy that focuses on changing individuals’ behaviors. It is often used to treat conditions such as autism and ADHD.
    Neuropsychology: Neuropsychology is a type of psychology that focuses on the relationship between the brain and behavior. It is often used to assess and treat cognitive impairments caused by brain injuries or diseases.

SCARS and the members of the SCARS Team do not engage in any of the above modalities in relationship to scam victims. SCARS is not a mental healthcare provider and recognizes the importance of professionalism and separation between its work and that of the licensed practice of psychology.

SCARS is an educational provider of generalized self-help information that individuals can use for their own benefit to achieve their own goals related to emotional trauma. SCARS recommends that all scam victims see professional counselors or therapists to help them determine the suitability of any specific information or practices that may help them.

SCARS cannot diagnose or treat any individuals, nor can it state the effectiveness of any educational information that it may provide, regardless of its experience in interacting with traumatized scam victims over time. All information that SCARS provides is purely for general educational purposes to help scam victims become aware of and better understand the topics and to be able to dialog with their counselors or therapists.

It is important that all readers understand these distinctions and that they apply the information that SCARS may publish at their own risk, and should do so only after consulting a licensed psychologist or mental healthcare provider.

Opinions

The opinions of the author are not necessarily those of the Society of Citizens Against Rleationship Scams Inc. The author is solely responsible for the content of their work. SCARS is protected under the Communications Decency Act (CDA) section 230 from liability.

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