How Online Romance Scams Can Have Long-Lasting Mental Health Impacts

The search for love is an eternal, ubiquitous human endeavor. And with the inception of online dating, that quest is easier than ever. Love, as it seems, is only a swipe away. But while the new normal of developing relationships online is an incredible way to connect with people at a distance, not everyone you encounter is looking for affection. Instead, online romance scammers are on the hunt for currency. 

An online romance scammer is someone who uses social engineering to craft fake or impersonated online personas that appeal romantically to their victim (per Federal Bureau of Investigation). Once they establish trust, the scammer manipulates the victim into sharing sensitive information, like bank account numbers, or worse — the victim ends up sending over something valuable like money. In fact, over the last 5 years romance scammers have fraudulently made over $1 billion dollars, reports the Federal Trade Commission.

But romance scams can harm the victim beyond the financial loss. It turns out that the emotional trauma from a romance scam can have lasting effects on the victim's mental health (via LifePaths Counseling). Here's everything you need to know about the mental health impacts of online romance scams.

Fear of crime

Fear of crime is a term that describes a person's behavioral, cognitive, and emotional responses to potential victimization from a criminal act (via Oxford Research Encyclopedias). According to a 2018 study published in Nature's journal of Humanities and Social Sciences Communications, those that have been the victim of a past crime may be twice as likely to develop fear of crime compared to those who have not been victimized.

For victims of online romance scams, fear of crime is also a potential issue. According to a 2022 study published in the Taylor and Francis journal of Victims and Offenders, fear of crime can have negative effects on mental health. For example, some victims of online romance scams fear that they may have their identities stolen, lose more money to a scam, or even worry that they may have to move in order to stop living in fear. Notably, these worries can lead to a heightened state of anxiety.

Lingering anxiety

Anxiety can make you feel tense and worried, but it can also lead to physical changes in your body like a rapid heartbeat (via American Psychological Association). According to some mental health experts, falling victim to a scam can increase your odds of heightened levels of anxiety, reports the Strait Times. These feelings of continued anxiety can keep you up at night and prevent you from getting quality sleep. It can also increase your vigilance and lead to feelings of fatigue or brain fog. In some cases, people may have headaches, aches, and other pains. All of this can even carry over to your job and affect your ability to perform. 

Healthline warns that while experiencing anxiety occasionally is normal, long-term anxiety can have negative health consequences. For example, chronic anxiety can keep your stress hormones elevated, which in turn can prolong or worsen your physical symptoms. This elevated stress response can also weaken your immune system.

Loss of a romantic relationship

For some victims of romance scams, the loss of the relationship hurts just as much as the loss of money. According to a 2015 study published in the journal British Society of Criminology, the researchers found that people who were victimized by an online romance scam reported that the loss of the relationship impacted them as much as the financial loss — and in some cases, it hurt worse. The targets of the romance scams experienced a wide range of emotions, like anger, embarrassment, shame, and worry, after the fact. Some participants even felt depressed and experienced suicidal thoughts. It is not uncommon to feel angry, depressed, or even traumatized after the loss of a relationship, reports Psych Central.

Some emotions, like embarrassment and shame, can influence victims of scams to keep their stories a secret (per Psychology Today). Not only does keeping the experience a secret prevent psychological healing, but it can also lead to feelings of loneliness — which may leave the victim susceptible to another scam. Unfortunately, these feelings can linger around long after the actual event.

Loss of trust

Lingering feelings of embarrassment and shame are common for romance scam victims, reports clinical psychologist Dr. Annabelle Chow (via The Straits Times). Months after the scam, some victims still struggle with self-confidence. Trauma therapist Olivia James says that the betrayal from someone who was thought to be a lover can lead the victim to lose trust in themselves and others (per The Guardian). The results can put a strain on other personal relationships with family and friends. The victim may not wish to share the emotional experience with others because they worry that their friends or family will blame them. In fact, victim blaming is common.

The aforementioned 2015 study published in the journal British Society of Criminology also found that some victims were, in fact, blamed for their actions. Friends and family were angry with the victims for losing money and overall did not help them emotionally heal.

Victims' voices & personal stories

Online romance scams can have lasting negative influences on people's mental health. One victim of an online romance scam told The Guardian that ending the relationship with the scammer felt like "losing a husband that I loved with every inch of my heart and soul. I was never going to get any closure or say goodbye." According to Psychology Today, lack of closure from strained romantic relationships can cause pain and anxiety that may lead to a loss of self-trust and even cause people to question their decisions. 

Beyond lost love, romance scams affect the victim's emotions and personal relationships. Another romance scam victim told Reader's Digest that the experience damaged her self-esteem and made her question her beliefs. In particular, she said that the experience "was devastating, and the dangerous relationship habits he employed will affect me for the rest of my life, psychologically, financially and, yes, in future relationships."