Whatever you choose to call them – grifters, scammers, con artists or catfish – there’s little question that fraudsters are enjoying a moment in the pop-culture sun. From The Tinder Swindler to Inventing Anna, shows about crimes of deception are topping Netflix’s viewing charts across the globe, while Sweet Bobby has been flying high in the international podcast charts for months. Clearly, swindlers sell. But for the victims of such crimes, seeing them mined for entertainment comes with mixed emotions.
“Making people aware of the risks is important, but I’ve found it very frustrating to hear people question whether the women in these shows are stupid,” says Grace Thomson (name changed upon request), who is from South Africa. “Because I can totally understand how easy it was for them to get sucked in. And I know how their mental health will be affected for years to come.”
More than a decade ago, Thomson, 44, developed what appeared to her to be an online friendship with a man on Twitter. They never met in person, but when a woman claiming to be the man’s girlfriend got in touch alleging an affair, Thomson cut off contact. It was not enough. The woman began turning up in Thomson’s street, leading to a stalking report being made to police.
Months later, Thomson met another man online. “We chatted for maybe two or three months and seemed to really like each other. We started to talk every day, sharing more personal conversations. He said he lived nearby, so we arranged to meet up. I was feeling really excited about our first date.
“Then, on the day, I was getting ready when my phone started beeping with loads of horrible, threatening messages — so many that, to this day, I can’t hear that message alert without it triggering a trauma response. There were so many messages. They were really, really nasty. And they didn’t stop.”
It turned out the potential love interest Thomson had been talking to was actually two people — her stalker and the man she had previously thought of as a friend. “Their harassment was extremely traumatic and affected me for a very long time,” she says. “I’m still extremely cautious. Whenever I meet someone new, I always wonder if they are who they say they are, or if they’re connected to them somehow.”
It’s a fear that’s not unfamiliar to Briton Elaine Parker, 42, the founder and chief executive of Safer Date, a new dating app that carries out extensive ID and global criminal record checks on its members to reduce the risk of fraud. Parker created the app after a horrific ordeal with a man she met on a popular dating website.
“What started out as a sweep-you-off-your-feet scenario turned into my worst nightmare,” she explains. “He put me through months of domestic abuse, sexual assault, rape, stalking and harassment. Once I got the police involved, I learned he had a long history of domestic abuse, but he was freely allowed [to use dating sites] to find his victims. He is now in prison for what he did to me, and on the sex offender's register in Britain for life – but when he gets out next year, there is nothing to stop him going back to online dating.”
The idea that Parker was “swept off her feet” is no surprise to Catherine Asta, a psychotherapist who often works with women overcoming trauma and abuse. Crimes of deception are particularly damaging to the mental health of victims, she says, precisely because they rely on the development of genuine connection.
“It’s premeditated, and it’s carried out at a deep emotional level,” Asta explains. “A fraudster creates something that they know you want and need, starting with a false narrative. You are preyed-upon and targeted for your vulnerability, need for connection and ability to trust. Where there’s a romantic element involved, there’s also optimism bias, because nobody is on a dating app looking for monsters. We want to trust people. It’s human nature.”
Parker agrees, saying this upturning of expectations stayed with her long after her abuser was jailed. “It had a profound effect on me,” she says. “I felt ashamed, embarrassed and really weak and, due to the love-bombing and gaslighting I experienced, I doubted my own sanity at times. I still struggle greatly with self-confidence.”
Thomson, too, says the total destruction of her sense of trust led her to withdraw from much of life. “It’s been 10 years now and, while it’s not as obvious, I still feel very vulnerable,” she says. “I left Twitter altogether and while I’m on Instagram now, it took me a very long time to feel OK with setting up an account there, let alone posting photos or videos of myself. For five or six years, I didn’t do the things I wanted to do in life because of the fear and trauma.”
Asta says withdrawing from society is a common response among victims of deception. “They may question their ability to make decisions in future, lose faith in themselves as a good judge of character, become risk-averse, and even withdraw and isolate themselves from any future possibility for betrayal, resulting in loneliness and disconnection.
“Often, victims can remain emotionally attached to the romanticised version of the perpetrator that hooked them in, even after the breach of trust is revealed. They may suffer from symptoms similar to post-traumatic stress disorder.”
This, Asta says, is why it’s so important for victims to seek professional help. “Shame keeps our stories hidden. But what everyone needs to know is that fraudsters are experts in human behaviour. They use deliberate psychological techniques designed to manipulate you into ignoring your own instincts. They tap into your inherent cognitive biases. They are highly skilled criminals who know how to hook you in.
“The most important thing to do is to open up and speak about your experiences, acknowledging the deep emotional impact. Self-compassion and self-understanding is key to healing.”
For Parker, healing has come from channelling her energy into a business she hopes will spare others the ordeal of catfishing. “There is no legal standard for the dating industry, and dating companies are not held responsible for crimes that happen on their platforms,” she says. “They're making billions of dollars worldwide, and do nothing to protect their customers, so it's important to educate people by any means possible. I openly talk about my story now as I want to get rid of the stigma and encourage others to do the same. Keeping it all to yourself makes it so much harder to recover.”
Meanwhile, for Thomson, regaining trust in others is an ongoing battle she is determined to win. “As humans, we don’t go into new friendships or relationships thinking someone is going to be evil or awful. Even after trauma, you still want to believe that people are largely good. That’s why it genuinely doesn’t matter if you’re highly intelligent or not. This really could happen to anybody."