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Online romance scams and victimhood


Online romance scams defraud dating website users of large amounts of money and inflict serious psychological harm. Victims of these scams often blame themselves for their losses and are blamed by others. We consider whether victims actually do share responsibility with the scammer for their losses. Three sorts of cases are particularly relevant: (i) where there are relatively many abortive meetings and even more fruitless money transfers in a single scam; (ii) where someone is a repeat scam victim; and (iii) where the victim has been warned by authorities that they are currently a victim of a scam and pay anyway. We argue that responsibility sometimes is shared, but that losses can be out of proportion to imprudence. Scam victims sometimes violate epistemic norms, but in ways that are peculiar to romantic attachment. The paper combines the methods of qualitative psychological research on scam victims and analytic philosophy (Research for this paper was supported by Grant EP/N028112/1 from the UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council).

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    Money might also be requested for other expenses (e.g. medical emergency, loan for business expenses; money to support education,) Sometimes these scams include an advance-fee fraud, where the victim is conned into believing they will receive gold or large amount of money, for a small fee (e.g. which they believe are contained in bags, held up in customs). The withdrawal of the meeting at the last moment seems to be psychologically important: the scam target feels that the meeting and the subsequent relationship is tantalisingly close, and their frustration may counteract inhibitions to pay yet again.

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    Perhaps surprisingly, the philosophical literature on victims misses the issues we are discussing here. Perhaps the most prominent kind of victim considered is someone who suffers a human rights violation. See Meyers (2018). There are also discussions about whether being the victim of crime creates a right to have the culprit punished by the state (Wertheimer 1991), or a right to have one’s suffering weighed in deliberations about sentencing. There is no recent journal literature on the definition of a victim and how, if at all, having a causal role in the production of the injury affects victim status. One of the only papers I have been able to find with a reasonable definition is James E Bayley, ‘The Concept of Victimhood’ (1991, 53): “People are victims if and only if (1) they have suffered a loss or some significant decrease in well-being unfairly or undeservedly and in such a manner that they were helpless to prevent the loss; (2) the loss has an identifiable cause; and (3) the legal or moral context of the loss entitles the sufferers of the loss to social concern”.

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    I have in mind “ledger” theories of responsibility, that is, theories that attribute some fault to the agent for what he has done, as opposed to holding him responsible through Strawsonian reactive attitudes. Attributions of responsibility in this sense need not make appropriate the expression of negative reactive attitudes such as blame. The distinction is explained in Section 2.2 of Eshleman (2016).

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    It is true that apparently willing co-operation sometimes has underneath it a significant element of compulsion or cognitive malfunctioning, as some qualitative research reveals (Whitty 2013). In those cases, victim status firms up as loss of responsibility increases.

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    The authors would like to thank Jethro Butler for surveying dating websites.

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    This imprudence is not necessarily connected in any way with “prudential citizenship”—a trend in public policy to transfer or responsibility for personal security, personal health and other goods from the government to the individual, sometimes against the background of a market in services providing or supporting these goods directed to individuals (Walklate and Mythen 2010).

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    In the English-speaking philosophical world, WK Clifford is credited with introducing systematic work on this topic. See his 1877 paper “The ethics of belief” (Clifford 1877). For more recent treatments, see (Conee and Feldman 2004; Shah 2006).


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Correspondence to Tom Sorell.

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Sorell, T., Whitty, M. Online romance scams and victimhood. Secur J 32, 342–361 (2019).

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  • Online dating
  • Hyperpersonal internet use
  • Online fraud
  • Romance scams
  • Moral responsibility
  • Epistemic ethics