Financial abuse and love fraud: my advice for R29

Someone you’ve been dating online tells you they have a financial problem and starts asking you for money. Or perhaps you’re about to move in with someone and you’re not sure how to protect your financial interests. What should you do?

I spoke to Refinery 29 about love fraud and financial abuse last week after they came across the story of Anna (not her real name). Anna was in a seven year relationship with a man before they bought their first house together in their early 30s. One day, after a music festival, her boyfriend texted her saying he was moving out of the flat they owned together. He stopped paying the mortgage and she started receiving debt collection letters through the flat in his name, demanding payment for unpaid bills she didn’t know about.

At the same time, Anna’s ex was asking to borrow money for things he said he had paid for years ago. Anna also received a message on Instagram from a girl who said she was dating him and was on holiday with him. It turns out that Anna’s boyfriend had taken out a credit card against their shared address and joint bank account. Anna’s credit rating has been severely damaged and she said dealing with the ordeal has caused her considerable stress and trauma. “It has been one of the most difficult experiences of my life,” she told R29.

Unfortunate…but preventable

I don’t know Anna and it sounds like she has been exceptionally unlucky. The situation she found herself in was not her fault and I would say it’s unusual for someone to be so financially duplicitous over such a long period of time.

I have never bought property or seriously co-habited with a romantic partner. It must be incredibly difficult, when you’re about to move in with someone you love and trust, to allow for the possibility that things could go badly wrong, let alone make plans for it. Nonetheless, I have come across enough of these cases to understand why you need to draw up a co-habitation agreement before you buy property with someone you’re not married to. It also sparks wider questions about love fraud, particularly with the rise in online dating and ‘catfishing’ in recent years, and whether successful young women could be particularly vulnerable to financial predators. Sadly, I’ve seen many cases of women who lent money to new boyfriends, only to see them waltz off into an Instagram sunset with another woman.

The biggest misconception when it comes to love fraud is that victims are just stupid or naive. In fact, many women who are targeted are successful, financially independent and smart women. Like all of us, they have weak-spots that can be horribly exploited if they’re in the wrong place, at the wrong time and meet the wrong people.

Victims tend to be highly empathetic, caring, kind and trusting people. However, they might be lonely, with some reporting trauma in their past (or present).

The biggest misconception when it comes to love fraud is that victims are just stupid or naive. In fact, many women who are targeted are successful, financially independent and smart women

They can be quick to idealise and romanticise relationships with new partners who appear to be as open and loving as them. I share this tendency and were it not for the field I’ve ended up in, I might have ended up being financially exploited by someone too. Victims might also be very people-centric so they enjoy spending on friends and family and sharing their resources with others. So they’re already predisposed to showing their love and appreciation for others through money.

How love fraudsters manipulate you

The problem is that fraudsters deliberately target these very kind people, quickly figuring out that they tend to take others on trust or give them the benefit of the doubt. They are extremely skillful at creating false intimacy by sharing (often fake) personal information, showering you with compliments/affection and being in constant contact.

In this way, they engineer a close relationship and loving feelings within a matter of weeks. This lays the ground for them to ask you for money and then ghost you when they get it – that’s love fraud.

This is all exacerbated by online dating, which is a fraudster’s charter. Today, you can carefully craft a false identity and hide your true circumstances throughout an entire relationship. IRL, many people would quickly become suspicious if they didn’t get to see their new partner’s home or meet their friends. You might also be able to get the measure of someone by picking up on contrived verbal cues and suspicious body language.

It’s much easier to fake your feelings over WhatsApp or Facetime than in the flesh.

When most of your relationship takes place online, you lean heavily on the written word and photos, which are one-dimensional and easy to doctor. It’s much easier to fake your feelings over WhatsApp or Facetime than in the flesh.

The horrid truth about financial abuse

A more devoted manipulator will find a way to fuse your finances together so they can take your money, do a credit spree and run (as was the case with Anna’s ex) or control your finances. These are characteristics of financial abuse. They exploit this romantic notion of “what’s mine is yours” and will foster a sense of obligation to get you to hand over cash, open up all your finances to them or report back on your spending behaviour.  They need you to feel that you have a responsibility to either help them or share what you have.

And this isn’t just about the cash. A romantic partner who emotionally blackmails you over money could be a very dangerous person. Fraudsters have sociopathic tendencies and love fraudsters in particular are often misogynists who resent modern women’s success and want to bring them down a peg or two. In some cases, they are also violent.

A romantic partner who emotionally blackmails you over money could be a very dangerous person

It’s important to stress that financial abuse is complex and multi-faceted. If you suspect that you or anyone you know could be in a financially abusive relationship, it’s important to seek help in a way that doesn’t put you in further danger. You can identify many more aspects of financial abuse here and read the very detailed, helpful guidance from Refuge on what you should do next. I should also add that financial abuse can happen to anyone, it’s not the victim’s fault and it often requires major outside intervention to overcome. This blog is more about how to spot early signs of fraudulent or duplicitous behaviour.

My most important advice is DON’T lend money to or share your accounts with ANYONE whose solid financial behaviour cannot be proven. And if you do join up your finances, have a legally binding agreement as to what will happen should things go south. This may seem brutal but it is NOT your job to rescue people. Your job is to look after yourself, and that job becomes significantly harder when you’re been conned out of money or if your credit rating and peace of mind have been trashed.

I provided a few tips for R29 but I include more below so you can avoid being bitten by a financial rat.

1) Keep working on your personal growth.

If you’ve been hurt or betrayed in the past, or if you’re lonely and desperate to find love, you may be more vulnerable to love fraud. This doesn’t mean you’re a weak or needy person, just that your worldview and character might cause you to ignore warning signs. Having therapy, cultivating lots of interests/relationships and developing confidence-boosting strategies can all help. Also remember you never need to be with someone to make you happy. If you’re new to online dating, go on dates with lots of different people before you strike up any relationships so you get used to the etiquette of online dating and have a bit of experience under your belt.

2) If in doubt, take it slow.

Most love fraudsters will only invest so much time and energy before they get frustrated and move on. It’s difficult because you don’t want to be cold and closed-off to genuine love but be wary of new partners who lavish compliments and say “I love you” when they hardly know you. Trust your instincts and if it feels too soon, it probably is. I would also be wary about sharing a bank account or credit card with someone you haven’t known for very long, and whose financial behaviour is a big unknown.

3) Be cautious with your personal information.

This applies to all your profiles and any chats on dating apps. Someone can steal your identity knowing just your full name, date of birth and home address, so don’t reveal all. Even posting pictures of your flat or house, where the street and property could be identified, is a bad idea. It may also be a good idea to chat under a pseudonym until you get to know the other person a bit better (which is what I do!)

4) Do a Sherlock Holmes!

If their pictures look amazing, do a reverse image search – https://support.google.com/websearch/answer/1325808?hl=en – just to double-check they aren’t a catfisher (i.e. appropriating other people’s identities). Also, watch out for someone who asks lots of personal, intimate questions but is very vague about themselves. You’re entitled to get the same level of accurate information about their lives.

5) Stick to messaging through mainstream dating apps.

Try to keep all your conversations on the messaging service and only use reputable dating apps (by reputable, I mean well-established). That way, you can report evidence of people asking for money to the sites. As soon as things turn weird, screenshot the messages and the user’s profile so you have proof.

6)  Resist the emotional blackmail.

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Fraudsters will tell you a convincing story about why they need the money and will often use emotional ploys to guilt-trip you or spark your empathy. I’ve heard about cases where the fraudster made up an elaborate medical or a personal problem just to pull at the heart strings. But other people’s financial problems are never your responsibility. If someone is in debt, point them to a debt charity – if what they’re saying is true, they need professional help anyway, not just more money. Tell them that you wish that you could help, but you haven’t known them for very long, you can’t afford to take risks and you hope they understand. They may keep pressurising you but once you make it clear that you won’t change your mind, fraudsters will usually show their true colours and drop you.

7) Save your (non-financial) help for those who genuinely need it.

You might meet a genuinely decent person who has financial problems and is not a fraudster. These people will never expect you to bail them out and they’ll seek independent help for their problems (especially if you encourage them). Their love or affection will never depend on you giving them money, and they’ll respect your right to keep your finances separate. But be wary of having a joint bank account with someone in chronic or serious debt as this will harm your credit rating too. Also, be realistic about the chances of you having a future together. Unless they have really reformed their financial behaviour, their over-borrowing or over-spending could cause major heartbreak for you in the long run.

8) Draw up a co-habitation agreement if you’re about to move in with someone

If you’re married to your partner (or in a civil partnership), you would be entitled to maintenance and a fair division of assets in the event of separation and divorce. There are no such protections automatically available to unmarried couples and while you could take your partner to court, there is no guarantee of you getting the resolution you need. Unmarried couples need to sign a co-habitation agreement before they move in together, because while it seems unromantic, a partner who really cares about you and your peace of mind won’t resist it. If they refuse, it might give you an inkling of their dark side. The agreement needs to be overseen by an independent legal adviser so it would stand up in court properly.

9) Separate at least some of your finances

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Having a joint bank account means you might spot suspicious transactions but you might also jump to the wrong conclusions. More importantly, it also means that your partner could drag your credit rating down with theirs. The remedy is to have a joint bank account for essential joint bills and purchases and separate accounts for ‘play’. If your partner starts failing to make those essential payments, you can refer back to the legally-binding cohabitation agreement. If they want to screw up their own personal finances, that’s their decision, but as soon as they start messing around with your joint finances, that becomes your business and you need a legal framework both as leverage and protection for your money.

10) Look for red flags

Try and suss out someone’s real financial behaviour. Some people fall into difficulty through no fault of their own but others may show a tendency to spend money they don’t have early on in a relationship, and I would take that as a big red flag. When things start getting more serious, it’s important to get a handle on how much debt your partner has and whether they show any signs of dealing with it.

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