Laundering Love: A Multi-Case Analysis of The Evolution of Romance Scam Victims Into Co-Offending Money Mules

– Executive Summary

“Honey this our opportunity to be together mylove, i will never do anything that will hurt you, mylove noting bad is going to happen, i promise the money there is my money and its legit money and i trust you that is why you my beneficiary” (AS1 to AV1.1, August 2020).[1] This text message, taken from historical communications between an offender and victim in a romance scam, illustrates the type of narrative offenders use to justify transferring money through victims’ bank accounts. When victims participate, they act as “money mules” and help launder funds from other frauds. In this example, the offender represented funds stolen from the Payroll Protection Program as money owed to the offender’s persona from a purported manager. Thus, offenders exploit individuals via romance scams not only for their money, but for their help in laundering other fraud proceeds.

According to FBI reporting, romance scams result in significant financial harm to individuals, with losses approaching $1 billion in 2021.[2] The fact that offenders groom money mules from among romance scam victims exacerbates the danger these scams pose. The intensification is due to money mules playing a significant role in laundering an additional $6 billion in losses to other cybercrimes.[3]

This thesis focuses on money mules who were first victimized in romance scams because of the role this type of scam plays in generating financial victims and money laundering co-conspirators. Though scholarly and practitioner research mentions money mules, no study could be found that thoroughly explains the transformation from romance scam victim to co-conspirator. This thesis fills that theoretical gap by exploring how individuals become money mules after victimization in online romance scams and asking why they do not all act as money mules.

A grounded theory approach was employed to analyze more than 134,000 historical text messages between three offenders and 22 victims to answer the research questions effectively. Three of these victims intentionally aided the offender with money laundering as money mules and accounted for 87% of the text messages. Three in-person interviews of romance scam victims augmented this historical data. Though none of the interviewees had acted as a money mule, their experiences helped develop more extensive insights into the grooming and exploitation processes. This data set allowed a unique look into romance scams and offenders’ techniques to gain and maintain victim compliance.

A key finding of this research is the significant role repetition plays in the scam. The offender repeats scheme-relevant premises, which form the basis to justify exploitative requests, from the moment victimization begins, all the way through to co-offending. Previous research provides insight into why this strategy is effective. In the psychological literature, the concept that repetition affects an individual’s judgment of truth is known as the repetition-induced truth effect.[4] The literature explains that frequent exposure to a statement results in an individual’s increasing belief that the statement is true.

Therefore, whether the offender frequently reaffirms love and commitment or repeats assertions of a large inheritance, each exposure creates stronger beliefs in the susceptible individual’s mind. The offender then relies on these premises to make exploitative requests of the individual. Past romance scam research used the term grooming to refer to the offender’s time spent preparing the victim to part with their money. In this thesis, grooming was found to be an offender’s strategic manipulation of the repetition-induced truth effect. This study extended this new definition of grooming beyond romance scam victimization to co-offending as a money mule.

Another finding of this thesis is that a person can simultaneously be a romance scam victim and a co-offending money mule. That is, individuals can recognize that they are participating in a crime by transferring money, but still deny that the entire relationship is part of a scam. The psychological literature suggests that a commonly recognized error in decision-making related to the repetition-induced truth effect produces this phenomenon, rather than a victim characteristic.[5]

This study also demonstrates the utility of research by Free and Murphy on co-offending to explain a money mule’s choice to offend. Free and Murphy find that “affective bonds” can be the basis for a person to choose to co-offend in fraud schemes.[6] They find that intimate relationships can justify criminal conduct, even for those not generally inclined towards criminality. In the case of romance scams, individuals may deem illegal activity more desirable than the loneliness experienced before the relationship began.

Overall, this thesis makes several significant contributions toward understanding the money mule aspect of romance scams. First, it advances a grounded theory that a romantically lonely victim who persistently engages online with an offender that strategically repeats scheme-relevant premises in the guise of a romantic partner can result in the victim acceding to the offender‘s exploitative requests and an eventual decision to co-offend. Next, this study introduces a new definition of grooming and demonstrates the functionality of repetition-induced truth for understanding several observed phenomena. Additionally, it incorporates research on co-offending to explain money mule activity. Finally, a romance scam warning letter was developed to inform victims about the scam and warn them about acting as a money mule. Together, these developments are intended to aid researchers and practitioners in better understanding and, ideally, disrupting romance scams before the victim offends.

[1] This quote is provided as the offender wrote it, with grammatical and stylistic errors intact.

[2] Federal Bureau of Investigation, Internet Crime Report 2021 (Washington, DC: Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2022), 7,

[3] Federal Bureau of Investigation, 7.

[4] Christian Unkelbach and Alex Koch, “Gullible but Functional? Information Repetition and the Formation of Beliefs,” in The Social Psychology of Gullibility: Fake News, Conspiracy Theories and Irrational Beliefs, ed. Joseph P. Forgas and Roy F. Baumeister (New York, NY: Routledge, 2019), 43–44.

[5] Unkelbach and Koch, 52.

[6] Clinton Free and Pamela R. Murphy, “The Ties That Bind: The Decision to Co-Offend in Fraud,” Contemporary Accounting Research 32, no. 1 (March 2015): 40–42,

3 thoughts on “Laundering Love: A Multi-Case Analysis of The Evolution of Romance Scam Victims Into Co-Offending Money Mules”

  1. Daniel E. Levenson

    Strikes me as a very interesting and nuanced approach to a serious issue. The idea that a victim can also willingly become party to criminal activity without necessarily recognizing the duplicity of someone who is effectively their co-conspirator is particularly noteworthy and deserving of further exploitation.

  2. Aleasha Henderson

    I will always do my best to let the world know about this recovery guru after I texted of he’s goodwill. Alex is the best I can recommend to any of us here that got stuck in an online investment scam, you all can contact me on my personal email and sure to get a positive response from me

  3. I was seriously devastated after I felt played by this company , They took all my funds , They have wonderful ways to make you deposit all your hard earned money in the hope of doubling the funds or making some sort of profits back and you get slammed with a tax before withdrawals , I reported to RecoveringATusa com who is a cryptocurrency expert and I got my funds

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top