A romance scam victim, a fraud expert and the writers of a new BBC thriller explain how gaslighting is used to cheat people out of their money.
After divorcing her husband of 24 years, Linda Young found herself alone in her home in a small, coastal town. Her grown-up children had finished university and were out of the house – and she didn’t know too many people nearby.
She was ready for a new relationship, so she decided to try online dating. And Linda – a busy special education school administrator – soon met a handsome man on a dating website for over-50s.
In the space of just six months, however, she would be conned out of more than £120,000 ($150,000).
Through daily emails, texts and late-night phone calls, Linda recalls how she fell “head-over-heels in love” with her scammer – and the pair bonded over their shared fondness for dogs.
“He would be so loving and caring,” Linda remembers. “I just couldn’t stop the adrenaline rush. It was addictive. Every time my phone buzzed or a text came through from him, my whole world just lit up.”
They were soon dreaming – or so she thought – about their future life together, which is when he asked for money to invest on their behalf.
From the beginning, she had a feeling it wasn’t right to be sending him money, but he would reassure and emotionally manipulate her, saying: “But we’re just investing in our future. All of this will come back to us.”
Linda looks back at her experience as a “temporary insanity” and says she was “under his spell”.
Gaslighting – manipulating someone into questioning their own sanity – can be a common technique to cheat people out of their money, says Lisa Mills, romance fraud expert at the charity Victim Support.
“This anguish takes a huge toll on their mental and physical health,” she adds.
For Ginny Skinner, who co-wrote the BBC drama series The Following Events Are Based on a Pack of Lies all about the tangled web of deception and manipulation involved in romance scams, a central theme in these cases is the “profoundly frightening experience” of gaslighting. It is something she and her fellow writer, her sister Penelope, encountered while speaking to real-life victims as part of their research.
‘Scams are everywhere’
According to romance scam expert Lisa, if victims challenge their romance scammer about sending money, they’re often guilt-tripped with lines like, “If you truly loved me, you would not question why I need this amount of money so quickly,” or “You said before that you wanted to help me, what’s changed?”
She says that romance scams are “particularly insidious” because they play on the basic desire for love and connection. “Even for people who are aware of romance fraud, being in a ‘love bubble’ can distort their sense of reality and make them vulnerable,” Lisa adds.
Linda – who never recovered her stolen cash – says: “It took me a long time to work through the shame.”
The Following Events Are Based on a Pack of Lies follows romance con artist Dr Rob Chance (played by Alistair Petrie), who targets fashion assistant Alice Newman (played by Rebekah Staton) before moving on to best-selling author Cheryl Harker (played by Oscar-nominee Marianne Jean-Baptiste).
Although their series is not based on any one real-life story, Ginny and Penelope remember being particularly fascinated by high-profile scammers like Bernie Madoff, the US financier who ran a $64.8bn (£53bn) Ponzi scheme, Elizabeth Holmes, who was behind the Theranos blood-testing start-up, and Fyre Festival’s Billy McFarland.
Penelope recently had her own run-in with a scammer, after receiving a fraudulent email that included a fake invoice. “I was in a rush and it was to do with money and it made me feel anxious and I clicked on it and entered all my personal information.”
One of the central questions in their drama is: why do romance scammers keep getting away with their crimes?
Fraud expert Lisa says we need to clamp down on victim-blaming. “Language is important – people often describe victims as having ‘fallen’ for a scam, when in reality they were exploited. You would never say that someone ‘fell’ for a burglary.”
When it comes to being conned, actor Alistair Petrie adds,”I think we’ve all said, ‘Oh, that would never happen to me,’ but I bet you a pound to a penny it’s happened to all of us to some degree.
How to stay safe from romance scams:
- Be suspicious of any requests for money from someone you have never met in person, particularly if you have only recently met online.
- Speak to your family or friends to get advice.
- Profile photos may not be genuine – do your research first. Performing a reverse image search on a search engine can find photos that have been taken from somewhere – or someone – else.
How to support a loved one in a romance scam:
- Reassure your loved one you’re there for them and it’s not their fault.
- Improve your own understanding about romance scams.
- Remember to look after yourself, too – supporting someone through romance fraud can be tough.
Source: ActionFraud / Victim Support
Further support can be found via BBC Action Line.
Watch The Following Events Are Based on a Pack of Lies weekly on Tuesdays at 21:00 on BBC One, plus stream every episode on BBC iPlayer.