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Grooming is a method of establishing a connection with a person to perpetrate a crime against them. Grooming is becoming more common in fraud, both online as well as in interpersonal interactions. What’s more, scammers are getting more sophisticated in their techniques. There is a mistaken belief that scammers are forceful, arrogant, and therefore easy to spot, but many play a long game, carefully and patiently grooming the victim before asking for money. In some cases, they don’t even ask for money. Instead, they carefully orchestrate events, sometimes using other actors to get the victim to offer help. This is a frequent occurrence in romance scams, but there are others, too. Financial and clairvoyant scams can also include a component of grooming, and this grooming serves a different purpose for different scams. Sometimes, it is to stop the victim from reporting the scam, and other times, it may be to facilitate long-term cooperation and financial abuse.

Romance Scams

In romance frauds, scammers typically groom the victim for months before a request for funds is made. In such romance scams, victims typically lose very large sums of money and sometimes even their whole life savings.  However, there are also quick methods used in some romance scams. Some instances work by establishing a quick romantic connection and asking the victim to help with a plane ticket so the two can meet. Typically, the scammer doesn’t show up, the victim realizes they were conned, and they eventually move on.

It is impossible to believe that a person would give someone a large sum of money to a person they never met, but grooming techniques can be very powerful in preparing the victim. In the early stages of the ploy, the scammer establishes a deep connection with a victim by mimicking the victim’s circumstances. For example, the scammer might tell the victim they are a single parent just like them, recently divorced, widowed, and so on. This instant similarity creates a bond between the two and encourages trust. This is a well known scam technique, predominately used to mask warning signs.

As humans, we gravitate towards what is familiar or similar to what we know and are used to, and trust is more openly extended to people who appear similar to us. Online relationships are also more intimate than relationships that happen face-to-face, developing quickly into declarations of love and plans for the future. The victim and the scammer typically share intimate details about each other quickly, leading to increased intimacy and heightened emotions—especially if the communication is frequent and delivered online and through text. The scammer will also have a convincing story to explain their inability to meet the victim in person. They may say they are working abroad on months-long assignments in professions that inspire trust such as army or medical assistance roles. Using these pretenses, the scammer develop strongs bonds with the victim, making future plans such as marriage or engagement upon the end of the job assignment.

It is also not uncommon for the victim to receive small gifts from the scammer in this grooming stage such as flowers or love tokens. This is also a known scam technique called ‘reciprocity rule.’

Reciprocity is very influential because as humans, we rely on reciprocity to survive in life. Most social norms consider being helpful as a valued trait. When someone does us a favor or is exceptionally generous or nice, we feel obliged to return the favor or do something for them. People who don’t have a concept of reciprocity and don’t return favors are typically seen as selfish, uncivilized, or ungrateful, and most people would hate to be seen as such. This is precisely how scammers can get us to comply with their requests by evoking reciprocity. In this stage, it is not uncommon for scammers to encourage the victim to cut ties with any friends or family members who express suspicion or warn the victim to be careful, making the victim even more dependent on them. Reciprocity is very influential. In fact, early research found that some people will reveal their passwords when small incentives are offered and especially when they are given incentives before the request for the password is made.

After this initial grooming stage, the victim is emotionally involved and invested in the relationship with the scammer. This is when a crisis happens. A scammer may pretend that they urgently need funds to prevent their business deal will from falling through or that they need funds for medical expenses because they have been involved in a serious accident. Sometimes, to corroborate the false narrative, a third person, also a scammer, is brought in to speak to the victim, perhaps pretending to be a lawyer or a doctor. The victim, thinking that their life partner is in trouble, will then offer to help.

Taking the time to groom the victim and investing in small favors beforehand almost always pays off. If the victim becomes suspicious at this stage, the scammer may change tactics, turning to threats, verbal abuse, and evoking guilt, telling the victim they will end the relationship because the victim doesn’t love them. This evokes fear, which is another scam technique. Under such stress, the victim may act impulsively and pay the money in an attempt to prove their love. Depending on the circumstances, this is where the scam may end, or the scammer will keep going if there is more to gain.

Financial Scams

Some financial scams also use an element of grooming, typically to stop the victim from reporting the fraud or to get the victim to comply once they become suspicious. For example, a victim may be called or contacted without prior notice and offered a good investment opportunity with a quick profit. The scammer may create a fraudulent website to make the scam appear more legitimate, and since this takes time and resources, it’s in the scammer’s interest to stay active in the scamming business as long as possible.

If the victim decides to invest, they will be given legitimate looking papers to sign, and for a while, they will be confident that the deal they just entered into is credible. But after the period of time quoted initially lapses when the victim is supposed to get returns, suspicion will set in quickly, and the victim will start asking questions. This is a dangerous stage for the scammer because it is in their interest to keep the scam going as long as possible. Often, this is where another person will be brought in to “cool the mark.” This is a very old scam technique. This new person will establish a friendship with a victim, perhaps by calling them daily and engaging in multiple conversations where personal daily life details are exchanged. Frequently, just like in romance scams, a scammer may mimic the victim’s circumstances, pretending to have the same religious affiliation or having the same beliefs and attitudes as the victim. This similarity will increase trust. The scammer will use this trust to reassure the victim, promising them that the delay is short and there are only minor complications, all the while assuming the position of a friend and a confidant. This makes it difficult for the victim to report the crime once they start to suspect something is wrong because they feel guilty reporting a friend.

The purpose of “cooling the mark” is to get a victim to accept that they have been conned, and the scammer can go on scamming more people in the meantime. Victims may also be asked to keep the transaction a secret, with an excuse that only so many people may benefit from this deal or perhaps because the deal is not completely ethical or legal. This also plays into scammers’ hands and avoids detection, as the victim may feel they have been involved in something illegal.

Putting a victim in a certain role is a scam technique known in psychological parlance as altercasting. For example, people would not hesitate to report a stranger, but when it comes to people they consider friends, it is harder because a true friend would not harm us, so there is a difficulty coming to terms with that realization.

Psychic and Clairvoyant Scams

Some psychic and clairvoyant scams can also have an element of grooming attached to them. These types of scams prey on recently bereaved individuals, but women and younger people are also more vulnerable to these types of frauds. A victim may engage with the psychic several times, becoming emotionally dependent on these conversations to manage their bereavement. The psychic may appear friendly and caring, assuming a role of a protector and a friend, but all the while exploiting the victim for monetary gain. If a victim decides to cut ties, sometimes threats are used to keep the exploitation going. The clairvoyant or a psychic may tell the victim that someone placed a curse or bad luck on them and ask for money to remove it, keeping the victim in the never-ending nightmare. The longer this relationship lasts, the more difficult is for the victim to break away from it due to sense of loyalty or fear.

What to Do if You Suspect a Scammer Is Grooming You

Scammers rely on secrecy, so first thing you can do to protect yourself is to confide in a good friend or a family member and ask them to give you advice. As they are not emotionally invested, they are likely to offer rational advice or a sounding board, which may be all you need to break away. Remember, scammers thrive where there is secrecy. The second thing that you can do is to report the scam to the authorities as soon as possible and provide them with as much detail as possible. It is likely other people are being abused by the same scammer, and your actions will save someone from going through the same experience. You are also likely to get advice on what to do.

Also, fraud prevention resources such as the Better Business Bureau (BBB), the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), and Take Five offer advice and reporting mechanisms. They also post information about recent and known scams, and they can provide further insights.

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