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date: 23 March 2019

Online Fraud

Summary and Keywords

Each year, millions of individuals worldwide find themselves victims of online fraud. Whether it is responding to a fraudulent email with bank account details or being defrauded through a false relationship, fraud can have a life-changing impact on an individual victim. For many victims, this goes beyond pure monetary losses and impacts their physical and emotional health and well-being. Historically, fraud has not been the priority of police or government agencies; however, increased developments in technology mean that fraud is affecting a greater number of victims than ever before. The online nature of many fraudulent approaches carries with it a new set of unique challenges associated with the policing and prevention of online fraud, and victim support services are currently not well equipped (if even in existence) to deal with the aftermath of victimization.

Keywords: online fraud, cyber fraud, identity theft, advanced fee fraud, romance fraud, phishing, victim blaming, victim support, crime prevention

The evolution and increased usage of technology across society has had a demonstrable impact in terms of how fraud is perpetrated. While fraud itself is by no means a new offense, the use of technologies (namely, the internet) has radically altered the way in which fraud can be perpetrated and how individuals can be victimized, particularly in terms of exposure to fraud. While substantial attention has been paid to the broader area of “cybercrime” (Clough, 2015; Grabosky, 2015; Holt & Bossler, 2015; Yar, 2013) or “online crime” (Yar, 2016), less attention has been paid to how fraud specifically has been transformed in an online environment (Duffield & Grabosky, 2001).

This article provides an overview of online fraud (also known as cyber fraud). Online fraud can be classed as a “computer-assisted offence” (Wall, 2007) in that it takes an existing form of criminality into a new (online) environment. While acknowledging the unresolved discussion that exists as to whether online fraud is unique compared to fraud perpetrated in a terrestrial environment (Grabosky, 2001), and moves toward a “digital criminology” that “breaks through the binary of online/offline and real/virtual barriers” (Stratton et al., 2017, p. 22), this article reviews the current state of knowledge and literature on fraud that is predominantly focused in an online environment. It achieves this by looking at three main areas. First, it looks at definitional issues surrounding online fraud and the different types of fraudulent approaches that are encompassed. Second, it examines what is known about those involved in online fraud (from both victim and offender perspectives). Lastly, it details the current responses to online fraud which include policing, prevention, and victim support.

Defining Online Fraud

Dictionary definitions of fraud revolve around notions of deception, cheating, and lying. For example, the Collins Dictionary defines fraud as “the crime of gaining money or financial benefits by a trick or by lying,” as well as “a fraud is something of someone that deceives people in a way that is illegal or dishonest.” The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) (2008, p. 5) defines fraud as an “invitation, request, notification or offer, designed to obtain someone’s personal information or money or otherwise obtain a financial benefit by deceptive means.” The evolution of technology has seen a gross expansion in the ability of offenders to target and defraud potential victims. In this way, platforms such as the internet have played a significant role in increasing victimization numbers. It is also important to note that the type of fraud referred to here specifically encompasses instances where there is direct contact between the offenders and their (potential or actual) victims.

With this as a basis, online fraud can be understood as the following:

The experience of an individual who has responded through the use of the Internet to a dishonest invitation, request, notification or offer by providing personal information or money which has led to the suffering of a financial or non-financial loss of some kind.

(Cross et al., 2014, p. 1)

There are two significant points relevant to this definition. The first is that it includes the loss of both money as well as personal information. Depending on the approach selected by an offender, the goal may be to gain personal details of a person rather than money up front. The ability of an offender to gain personal information from an individual means that the offender has the option to perpetrate identity crime against that victim, and use the victim’s identity to gain items of monetary value (such as credit cards, loans, or other financial goods and services).

The second point is that it includes both the financial and nonfinancial loss that many victims incur from online fraud. Again, this recognizes that fraud is not simply about the loss of money, but can have devastating consequences on the physical and emotional health and well-being of a person, as well as negatively impact their relationships and other areas of their lives (Button et al., 2009; Cross et al., 2016a, 2016b).

As stated, fraud is not new; rather the development of new communication technologies has simply enabled greater targeting of potential victims worldwide. In this way, existing definitions of fraud are still relevant, but now simply include recognition of an online element in their perpetration. Further, an endless number of ways that offenders can approach potential victims now exist (Cross & Kelly, 2016). The types of “plotlines” or stories that offenders use are only bounded by their imagination. In this way, it is impossible to educate the public against all potential approaches. However, there are some common approaches that are employed by offenders to deceive victims and obtain money. These are detailed here.

Advance Fee Fraud

While an uncommon term, advance fee fraud (AFF) is probably one of the most common approaches for fraud and one that is easily recognized by many. AFF is also known as “Nigerian fraud” or “419 fraud,” which refers to the section of the Nigerian criminal code that relates to the offense of fraud (Button & Cross, 2017). While AFF has historical origins in Nigeria (Schoenmakers et al., 2009; Smith et al., 1999), it is important to note that this approach is used by offenders globally and also targets victims globally.

AFF occurs when there is a request for a small amount of money, with the promise of a larger amount of money in return (Ross & Smith, 2011). If a victim complies with this initial request for money, then the offender will continue to put forward circumstances that justify further requests for money and enable continuous (and often escalating) requests for victims to send requested transactions. Sadly, the promised amount is never received by the victims; rather, they can incur substantial financial losses as a result and usually only cease incurring losses when they realize the promises are fraudulent or they have no money left to send (in some cases, this may be after incurring additional loans, personal debts, or mortgages).

Common AFF approaches are seen in investment schemes, inheritance notifications, lottery prize notifications, employment schemes, and charity approaches (Button & Cross, 2017). In these instances, the offender may use a targeted approach to individuals (e.g., through using publicly available family history information in order to craft a legitimate inheritance notification) or use a general approach that is sent to a large number of potential victims, with only a few needing to respond to make the scheme worthwhile. Both have advantages and both usually are able to hook victims.

Romance Fraud

Romance fraud (also known as “dating and relationship fraud” or “sweetheart swindles”) is where an offender uses the legitimate guise of a relationship in order to deceive and defraud an individual. While romance fraud can occur across online and offline contexts, the overwhelming majority of romance fraud victimization is currently initiated on the internet via dating applications, websites, direct email, or social media platforms. The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) (2017b) highlights this type of fraud and reported that one third of romance fraud cases reported in Australia in 2016 were initiated using social media. However, once a relationship is established, offenders will use all mediums of communication including email, telephone, text messages, and face-to-face meetings to develop and maintain the relationship. Offenders use the guise of a romantic relationship as a means of enabling the development of trust and rapport with victims, allowing them to coerce their targets into sending money (Rege, 2009; Whitty & Buchanan, 2012). Romance fraud can be differentiated from a “bad” relationship by its modus operandi, with the offender explicitly seeking to form a relationship with a person for the sole purpose of deceiving and manipulating them into sending money.

Romance fraud has gained significant popularity with offenders in recent years, which is likely attributed to the growth and increased levels of acceptance of online dating and other social networking sites, as well as recognition by offenders that the development of a relationship is a highly successful way of defrauding a person. This success in part stems from the known degree of shame and stigma associated with such victimization (Cross, 2015), the low likelihood of the victim making a report (Cross et al., 2016), and the large returns made by offenders in targeting victims through a relationship (ACCC, 2018). The increased usage of social networking sites has also increased the available pool of victims who can be targeted by offenders. There are a range of social engineering techniques that offenders employ to gain trust with potential victims (known as the scammers persuasion model) (Whitty, 2013b) as well as psychological maltreatment techniques (common in domestic violence literature) to maintain ongoing compliance with requests for money (Cross, 2018b).


In contrast to both AFF and romance fraud, phishing approaches seek to obtain personal information from individuals to enable offenders to perpetrate further offenses. Phishing usually manifests itself in a request from a legitimate institution (usually via email or text message) and asks the recipient to send personal information (including, but not limited to, banking details and passwords or other sensitive information) (Choo, 2011). If the victim complies, the offenders will then use the credentials provided to access bank accounts and credit cards to make unauthorized transactions. One of the most common guises of phishing is an email purportedly from a bank or other financial institution stating that there is a problem with the customer’s account and asking them to verify their details. This can be done in one of two ways: first, through responding to the email with the required information, or second, by clicking on a link to what appears to be a genuine log-in screen but is actually a ghost website whereby the offenders collect the information and are then able to genuinely log into the account. The overall aim of the offender is to “intercept user credentials” (Leukfeldt et al., 2017, p. 705).

Phishing is a prime example of why personal details are also of value to offenders in addition to direct monetary transfers. In this way, offenders will use the personal details of individuals in order to access their accounts directly and transfer any funds to their own accounts, or they will use the credentials to gain further credit or loans from a bank or other financial institution. In addition, phishing emails enable offenders to perpetrate identity crimes (see “Identity Crime”) against the victim, which may go beyond financial transactions, but may then enable other actions (such as porting mobile or internet services to carry out other criminal acts) (Cross, 2017a).

The success of phishing attempts relies on uses a variety of social engineering techniques and targets a person’s sense of trust and authority (as the email is coming from a bank or other genuine institution). It also plays on a sense of urgency usually conveyed in the email, that there is a problem which needs to be corrected immediately to prevent negative consequences (e.g., a bank account being frozen and therefore not being able to access required funds). It also assumes a fast and immediate response to the email from a recipient, which seeks to exploit the busyness of many individuals who are eager to clear their email as quickly as possible without giving much thought to some requests (see Manske, 2000; Mitnick & Simon, 2002; and Peltier, 2006 for an overview of social engineering techniques).

Identity Crime

Given the key element of deception and lies that are associated with fraudulent approaches, the concept of identity crime is critical to many categories of fraud as well as standing by itself. Identity crime can be understood as an “umbrella concept” (Wall, 2013, p. 437) of “identity theft, identity fraud, identity fabrication, identity manipulation, [and] lent identities” (Smith, 2011, p. 142). Although a single definition is difficult given the complexities of the concept, within Australia identity crime is argued to include “offences in which a perpetrator uses a false identity in order to facilitate the commission of a crime” (Australasian Centre for Policing Research [ACPR], 2006, p. 9). Stemming from this, identity fraud is defined as “the gaining of money, goods, services or other benefits through the use of a false identity” (ACPR, 2006, p. 9) and “identity theft” is argued to “involve the theft of [a] pre-existing identity” (ACPR, 2006, p. 9). Further, it is argued that identity crime is “typically not a stand-alone crime” (Slosarik, 2002, p. 329), but instead it can be used as “a tool used to facilitate some other criminal act” (Pontell, 2002, p. 305) such as the ability of offenders to port telephone service providers through the successful use of phishing emails. Further, identity crime is a common aspect of romance fraud whereby an offender will take on the profile details or photographs of a genuine person and either manipulate or use these to lure potential victims, which is particularly problematic with the popular use of military profiles by offenders to initiate relationships with unsuspecting victims (Leffler, 2018; U.S. Criminal Investigation Command, 2018).

Other Types of Online Fraud

Beal et al. (2015) put forward a typology of fraud which includes some of those mentioned. They included seven different categories of fraud influenced by the UN Principles and Framework for International Classification of Crime for Statistical Purposes (2012). Button and Cross (2017) added to this typology with inclusion of identity theft, recognizing that the gaining of personal information can be just as effective in perpetrating fraud against a victim and incur equally devastating losses as other types of fraud covered in the typology (see Figure 1).

Online FraudClick to view larger

Figure 1. Eight broad categories of fraud. Taken from Button and Cross (2017, p. 13).

As stated, there are an endless number of approaches that can be used by an offender to perpetrate online fraud. The most popular methods employed by offenders have been discussed here and some existing typologies are outlined that seek to classify what exists. Ultimately it is critical to recognize that despite the differences in plotlines, there is one commonality across all fraudulent approaches: the specific request to send money or personal details. Regardless of the scenario or context of the fraud, the goal of any offender is to gain money or personal details (which can lead to the access of money and other financial gains). The need to put greater recognition on this one fact, rather than focus attention on the different typologies and potential fraud classifications, is an important point that is returned to in “Prevention of Online Fraud.”

What Is Known About Fraud Statistics

The broad category of fraud is well known to have a notoriously low rate of reporting to authorities (Button et al., 2014; Copes et al., 2001; van Wyk & Mason, 2001). Studies across several countries (including the United Kingdom, the United States, and Canada) estimate that less than one third of all victims report fraud to authorities (Mason & Benson, 1996; Schoepfer & Piquero, 2009; Titus et al., 1995). As an indication, Rebovich and Layne (2000) assert that in the U.S. context, “over 90% of frauds uncovered in the National Public Survey on White Collar Crime never made it to the files of the crime control or consumer protection agencies.” This statistic is similar to other countries, including Australia. Smith (2008, p. 383) observes that “non-reporting rates vary considerably, although many surveys have found that up to two-thirds of people do not report fraud officially.” There is also evidence to suggest that the reporting of fraud in an online context is even lower than in offline contexts (Smith, 2007, 2008).

Several reasons exist for low levels of fraud reporting across both offline and online contexts. These include:

  • not knowing that they are victims of fraud;

  • not knowing who to report to or how to lodge a complaint;

  • a belief that the incident is too trivial; and

  • a belief that nothing can be done about it (Cross, 2018b)

Cumulatively, a lack of reporting contributes to the lack of an accurate assessment of the extent and value of online fraud victimization and associated losses. From a policing perspective, police resources and budgets are allocated based on crime statistics and what is reported to the police. It is difficult to allocate appropriate resources to a problem that is not well understood and that is not visible in data used to make financial and resource decisions (Cross & Blackshaw, 2015).

One of the main challenges in obtaining relevant data as it relates to online fraud is the unique characteristic of the “fraud justice network” itself (Button et al., 2012). Given the multitude of agencies that are involved in fraud and who can potentially take a complaint from a victim, it can be difficult to ascertain an accurate picture across this variety of agencies. There have been several attempts to improve the ways in which victims can report online fraud offenses as well as integrate possible data sources of victim information. There are several central reporting mechanisms that exist across the world, that seek to amalgamate all relevant data and intelligence into one place. Examples include ActionFraud (United Kingdom), the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) (United States), the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre (CAFC), the Australian Cybercrime Online Reporting Network (ACORN), and the Online Reporting Button (ORB) (New Zealand).

While there is an acknowledgment of the lack of accurate statistics relating to fraud (both online and offline), there are a number of figures which begin to provide an indication of the problematic nature of fraud and the enormity of losses incurred at a victim level, taken from these reporting agencies. For example, in Australia, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) recorded that AU$299 million was lost to consumers in 2016 as a result of fraud, with a considerable amount of this from online approaches (ACCC, 2017b). In the United States, the IC3 indicated that in 2015, total losses (including those related to fraud) were estimated at US$1,070,711,522 (IC3, 2015, p. 12). The CAFC reported over CA$78M was lost through mass-marketing fraud alone in 2014 (CAFC, 2015). Notably in 2016, England and Wales included fraud and cybercrime offenses in their crime statistics for the first time. As a result, the crime statistics effectively doubled, with the survey reporting 6.3 million (traditional) offenses and a further 5.8 million fraud and computer-related offenses (Office of National Statistics, 2016).

What Is Known About Offenders

There has been limited research about fraud offenders specifically within an online context. A small number of studies have been made which examined white-collar criminals more broadly (see Button et al., 2017; Goldstraw-White, 2011; Levi, 2008a, 2008b; and Shover & Hunter, 2010 for some examples). Of the limited research that has targeted online fraud offenders, this appears almost exclusively to have been undertaken by Nigerian scholars on Nigerian offenders (Cross, 2018). It is critical to acknowledge that online fraud is not simply a West African problem, but is perpetrated from within many countries. However, this body of research provides insights into factors that, collectively, enable fraud at a global level and helps to understand why Nigeria (and other West African nations) is a focal point for fraud offending.

First, there is much written on the economic, political, and social circumstances within Nigeria. In a country plagued by corruption (Melvin & Ayotunde, 2010, p. 373; Solaja, 2014, p. 11) and characterized by high levels of youth unemployment (Hassan et al., 2012, p. 628; Ogwezzy, 2012, p. 99; Tade & Aliyu, 2011, p. 869), it is perhaps not hard to understand that criminal enterprises are seen as a viable means to make money to sustain oneself and support a family. As observed by Babatunde and Olanrewaju (2015, p. 52), “there exists a large gap between the rich and the average, as such many strive to level up using the quickest means possible.”

Related to this is the cultural priority placed on money as a means of social status. Many scholars indicate that a driving factor behind high levels of online fraud and other cybercrimes stems from the importance of wealth and materialism within society (Tade & Aliyu, 2011). Given that status is seen to emanate from money, the ability of individuals to make money and demonstrate their power and prestige through wealth is a motivating factor for many. While a focus and strong emphasis on money by itself is not necessarily a bad thing, Nigerian society is argued to lack any questioning of how money is obtained; rather, it is the mere presence of money and wealth observed by others that one is judged upon. Therefore, for many young people who perpetrate online fraud to obtain their wealth, there is an acceptance and tolerance of this criminal behavior, as the focus is on the outcome of the endeavors.

As well as needing to invoke substantial cultural change in order to try to reduce online fraud offending within Nigeria, the role of spirituality is also highlighted in the Nigerian research. Given the fact that spirituality is an ingrained part of the lives of many Nigerians (Tade, 2013, p. 692), it is therefore not unusual for spirituality to transfer across to offending behavior. In this way, many offenders will seek guidance from known spiritualists in order to improve their ability to defraud victims and to improve their success in gaining increased amounts of money as a result of their actions (Aransiola & Asindemade, 2011).

The need to consider the role of and reliance upon spirituality is a sharp deviation away from all previous research examining online fraud from a global North perspective (namely, European, North American, and even Australian scholars in this context). The predominant secular identity of the global North has yet to acknowledge or engage in an exploration of how those in the global South (in this instance, Africa) may use the supernatural and voodoo to assist with their criminal activities. Overall, the existing Nigerian literature examining online fraud paints a complex picture of the factors that enable online fraud to both occur and flourish. At a macro level, it can be seen as symptomatic of larger social and systemic challenges plaguing Nigeria as a nation state. Further, a strong belief in spiritualism and the supernatural, with its ability to improve the offender’s success in victimizing others, presents challenges to the largely secular global North’s understanding of crime. It is to the detriment of both the global North and global South that discussions targeting online offending are not framed within an appropriate cultural lens. For example, advocating for improved legislation or increased police resources will not address the high levels of corruption that are currently observed in Nigeria. Further, traditional criminal justice responses to offenses (such as incarceration) are unlikely to address the root causes of offending behavior if they are based in culturally acceptable notions of this behavior. In this way, there is a need to better understand these contextual factors in order to holistically address online fraud.

What Is Known About Victims

Everyone is vulnerable to fraudulent approaches, and there are an endless number of potential approaches that offenders are willing to employ. Offenders are highly skilled tech-savvy individuals who can quickly identify a weakness or vulnerability in a person and employ a range of techniques to manipulate and exploit that factor. In that way, it is difficult to overcome the overriding belief of many individuals that “it will never happen to me.” No individual ever thinks that he or she could be a victim of fraud (Cross, 2015).

Given the diversity of fraudulent approaches, there is a corresponding diversity in the types of victims targeted. Different schemes will seek to exploit the particular weaknesses or desires of a particular demographic. For example, romance fraud will only be successful on those who are looking for a relationship, in the same way that investment fraud is usually only successful on those who have funds that they are willing and able to invest. While there is no typical profile or typology of a fraud victim, research does indicate particular characteristics that are commonly associated with various fraudulent approaches. Some of these are given here.

In 2016, the Office of National Statistics (United Kingdom) conducted its annual England and Wales Crime Survey, which included questions about fraud victimization. This survey found that while most property and violent crimes tend to be dominated by younger victims, for frauds it found that the 45- to 54-year age group had higher rates of victimization than the 16- to 24-year and 75+-year age groups (ONS, 2016). This corresponds to statistics released by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) (2017b), who reported those aged 55 years and over made 45% of all fraud reports (it is important to note that these statistics cover all types of frauds and are not necessarily exclusively associated with those that are perpetrated in an online environment).

A number of years ago, the (former) National Fraud Authority (United Kingdom) released a report which broke down the entire U.K. population into different segments based on their risk profiles and likely fraud victimization. This report ascertained that within society, there are seven core segments and one subsegment (NFA, 2011, p. 2) which, along with their key characteristics, are summarized in Table 1.

Table 1. Segments of the U.K. Adult Population and Fraud Vulnerability


Percentage of U.K. Adult Population

Category Description


Likely Type of Fraud Victimization

Segment 1


Avoiding risk but lacking awareness

Moderate to wealthy females, high-worth targets for fraudsters

Identity fraud

Bank card fraud

Property investment scams

Segment 2a


Avoiding risk, exemplary behaviors

Low income, older females

Premium rate telephone scams

Charitable donations

Foreign lotteries and competitions

Clairvoyant and psychic fraud

Segment 2b


Avoiding risk, but vulnerable to offers

Very low income, pensionable age females

Premium rate telephone scams

Foreign lotteries and competitions

Clairvoyant and psychic fraud

Miracle health cures

Segment 3


Avoiding risk, but still a victim

Less affluent, older males

Premium rate telephone scams

Foreign lotteries and competitions

Online dating

Pyramid selling

Segment 4


Risk takers seeking financial gain

Affluent, opportunity- seeking professional males

Identity fraud

Phishing emails

Bank card fraud

Property investment scams

Foreign money- making investments

Segment 5


Risk takers, demonstrating naivety

Less affluent, younger females, lacking knowledge

Premium rate telephone scams

Bank card fraud

Pyramid selling

Segment 6


Risk taker and sure of themselves

Overconfident men in denial

Online banking scams

Bank card fraud

Phishing emails

Segment 7


Risk takers and poor behaviors

Young males and females, complacent and careless

Online banking scams

Bank card fraud

Online shopping fraud

Note. Data used in this table were compiled from the National Fraud Authority (2011) and taken from Button and Cross (2017, p. 57).

This table illustrates the various risk profiles that exist for men and women, depending on their age, income, personality, and attitudes. It also demonstrates the variety of schemes that are more effectively targeted to their identified vulnerabilities and which are more likely to be successful in terms of victimization. This segmentation research is an important step to gaining a better understanding of the different ways in which groups within the population can be targeted for fraud and how best to respond to individual weaknesses and vulnerabilities. While the categories are largely generalizations and would not always hold true, they provide an important step in better understanding how offenders think and tailor their fraudulent pitches to solicit potential victims.

The Impacts of Online Fraud

It is a myth to think that online fraud is a victimless crime that does not have discernible impacts on those it affects. Rather, online fraud can have devastating consequences across all aspects of a victim’s life. For some victims, these impacts may be short-lived and contained over a particular period of time, but for others, they are ongoing and completely life changing. One of the most important findings to arise from research focused on fraud victims is the fact that they experience both financial and nonfinancial losses. While the loss of money is unambiguous, there are also a range of nonfinancial harms that can be equally devastating but are less visible than their monetary counterparts. These nonfinancial harms include the victim’s physical safety and health; emotional and psychological well-being; relationship breakdowns; and reputation and social standing, among others impacts (Button et al., 2014; Kerr et al., 2013, p. 36).

The physical and emotional costs to fraud are not always readily acknowledged. The stress and anxiety associated with victimization can manifest itself in the physical deterioration of the victims’ health, as well as the impact on their psychological and emotional well-being (Button et al., 2009; Ganzini et al., 1990; Ross & Smith, 2011). To demonstrate the severity of fraud on individuals, it is argued that in some cases fraud victims “share many of the same devastating outcomes as their counterparts who have suffered serious violent crime” (Marsh, 2004, p. 127; see also Deem, 2000, p. 36).

Sadly, there are victims who will experience such intense and high levels of depression that they will contemplate suicide or, in worst-case scenarios, successfully take their own lives (Button et al., 2009; Cross et al., 2016a, 2016b; Ganzini et al., 1990). It is difficult to know exactly how many suicides may be attributed to fraud, given the secrecy around victimization and the shame and stigma associated with it (Cross, 2013, 2015). However, there are a number of documented cases where victims have committed suicide (Cross et al., 2014).

While victims are not a homogeneous group and fraud victimization will affect individuals differently, there is still clear evidence that for some victims, the impacts are severe enough to warrant support services to assist in recovery. This point is returned to in “Victim Support.”

Other Consequences of Online Fraud

In addition to the range of impacts already addressed, victims of online fraud can experience a wide range of other consequences to their physical safety. Each year, many individuals who are involved in different types of fraud travel overseas to meet with their offender(s). There are dangers involved with this, including kidnapping. There are several documented instances where victims have been kidnapped when they arrived in a country to meet with the offender (Buchanan & Whitty, 2014; Cross et al., 2014). In 2010, the United Kingdom’s Serious and Organised Crime Agency issued a public warning after a British citizen was kidnapped on arrival at a country in West Africa (BBC News, 2010). In this article, there was an assumption that Australian, German, and Belgian nationals had also been subject to kidnapping in similar circumstances (BBC News, 2010).

Even more sinister than kidnapping is the tragic story of an Australian woman, Jette Jacobs (ABC News, 2014; Consumer Protection, 2014). The 67-year-old grandmother traveled to South Africa in 2013 to meet with a Nigerian man, Orowo “Jesse” Omokoh, with whom she had been communicating online, and who had proposed marriage to her. Jacobs was found dead in a rented apartment in South Africa on February 9, 2013, five days after Omokoh had visited her. Investigations into her murder uncovered that Jacobs was a victim of romance fraud and had sent over AU$90,000 to Omokoh, who was arrested in February, 2014 on charges of both fraud and murder (EFCC, 2014).

While the death of a fraud victim is not a common occurrence, other victims also find themselves in life-altering situations as a result of their involvement in fraud. Offenders are known to deceive and manipulate victims into becoming mules, often without their direct knowledge of what is happening. This offense crosses into both the trafficking of drugs and the laundering of money. Unfortunately, there are many examples of both of these activities in the global media. MULE, an organization established in 2015 to assist victims of cybercrime and human trafficking, notes a list of individuals who have been sentenced to jail (and in one case, died in custody) in countries across the world as a result of unwittingly trafficking drugs as part of their romance fraud victimization. This includes New Zealand’s Sharon Armstrong, a romance fraud victim who was arrested in Buenos Aires in 2011 with over five kilograms of cocaine (Opatowski & Francis, 2011). Armstrong was found guilty and sentenced to 4 years and 10 months in jail by a judge who accepted that she had been deceived into carrying the drugs by the man she was communicating with online (Cleansed by the wind, 2013).

In addition to drugs, many victims are coerced into laundering money through their accounts at the request of their offenders. Most are unaware of the reality of their actions and that they are committing a crime themselves. The use of money mules is increasingly being used by offenders to overcome the suspicions that are now commonplace with requests to send money through remittance agencies (such as Western Union and Moneygram) (Consumer Protection, 2015). A request to send money to a local bank account does not yet attract the same attention or potential warning signs compared to remittance agencies (Consumer Protection, 2015). In that way, money mules are an effective way for offenders to obtain and transfer their money across global networks.

While the mules themselves are likely victims and in most circumstances do not realize the gravity and extent of their actions, there are instances where police will charge the individuals for the crimes they are committing. For example, an Australian woman was convicted of transferring AU$450,000 (Menagh, 2016); an Australian man was convicted of transferring AU$120,000 (Clarke, 2016); a U.K. woman was convicted and sentenced to jail for laundering £228,000 (Hampshire Constabulary, 2017); and a U.S. woman was convicted and sentenced to 52 months in jail after transferring over US$1.1 million (Doctorow, 2015; Koerner, 2015). Each of these individuals was transferring money at the request of an offender and was part of a fraudulent scheme.

Victim Blaming

The dynamics of online fraud victimization is currently not well understood; thus, a number of common myths and misconceptions exist about who victims of online fraud are and how they find themselves in such circumstances (Cross, 2013). Fraud is a unique offense in that there is active participation on the part of the victims in the offense through their sending of money or personal details. While most do this willingly, they are doing it under false pretenses, having been deceived and manipulated into sending the money in the first place. However, the belief that they are complicit in the offense hinders their ability to be understood as victims.

Christie (1986) wrote a seminal text entitled “The Ideal Victim.” In this, he argued for what he asserts constitutes the “ideal victim” or an individual that is most readily given “victim” status when an offense occurs. His example is a little old lady who is robbed during the day by a stranger, on her way home from caring for her sick sister. This example is used to illustrate the five characteristics that Christie suggested constitute an ideal victim: a focus on the weakness and vulnerability of the victim; the respectability of the victim’s actions at the time; the location of the victim at the time of the incident; the “big and bad” nature of the offender; and the nonexistence of a prior relationship between the victim and the offender (Christie, 1986, p. 19). In contrast, Christie (1986) argues that an absence of these five characteristics will usually mark people as ineligible for victim status, or be viewed as “non-ideal victims.”

With these circumstances as a basis, it is easy to see how the example of the little old lady epitomizes the five characteristics presented. The old woman is seen as completely innocent and blameless in her situation and is readily ascribed genuine victim status. In contrast, victims of online fraud are perceived to have violated these characteristics through their participation in the offense and also through a belief that they should have known better. Further, the presence of victims in an online space (in particular, online dating websites) can still have negative connotations and a lack of acceptance in some cases (Cross et al., 2016). As a result, individuals are seen to be “non-ideal” victims and they are not given or permitted to take on victim status. While there is an argument around the reluctance of individuals to adopt a victim status (with many opting for the term “survivor”), there is still a symbolic meaning attached to the label of “victim,” and it operates as a mechanism to enable individuals to access services and support (e.g., through the criminal justice system) (see Cross, 2018a, for a more detailed discussion).

The consequences of this “non-ideal” victim status are substantial. It provides a basis for a large degree of victim blaming across society, and also enables the perpetuation of a strong negative stereotype targeted at online fraud victims. The negative stereotype asserts that victims of online fraud are greedy, uneducated, gullible, and somewhat deserving of their victimization (Cross, 2013, 2015). There is a belief that victims should have been able to identify fraudulent approaches and are personally culpable for the consequences of their actions. In this way, the stereotype supports victim-blaming discourses that focus on the responsibility of individual victims. Instances of this victim-blaming attitude have been witnessed across formal responses from the “fraud justice network” in both the United Kingdom and Australia (Button et al., 2009; 2012; Cross et al., 2016). However, those who seek to challenge the stereotype (see, e.g., Cross, 2015), argue that it is simplistic to blame the victim for what happened and ignores the role of the offender in the perpetration of the fraud. It is they who have manipulated, exploited, and deceived the victims; however, in most cases they are invisible and they therefore avoid any accountability.

The consequences for individual victims from this victim-blaming discourse, negative stereotype, and non-ideal victim status are immense. A large degree of shame and stigma are associated with being a victim of online fraud, which inhibits the disclosure of what has happened to family, friends, and other third parties. It can act as an insurmountable barrier for reporting when victims are afraid of the reaction to their disclosure, of being blamed for their situation, or of not being believed in the first place. Existing research clearly demonstrates the negative experiences of online fraud victims in their attempts to navigate the fraud justice network and report their victimization to police and other relevant agencies (Button et al., 2009; Cross et al., 2016a, 2016b). In this way, many victims experience trauma at the hands of their offender and then at the hands of the fraud justice network.

Victim Support

Despite the substantial impacts that online fraud can have on an individual, there are limited support services available globally to assist fraud victims with recovery, in part because of a lack of acknowledgment of fraud victims and the fact that they incur substantially more than pure financial losses. An additional factor, as mentioned, is their inability to claim victim status and thus trigger a response from the fraud justice network that enables them to access available support services.

A number of generic support services are available to all victims of crime. Examples of these include Victim Support (a not-for-profit organization in the United Kingdom), Victim Services (Toronto, Canada), and Victim Support Services (Adelaide, Australia). These include victims of online fraud, but in reality, victims are reticent to access victim support services for reasons previously mentioned (surrounding the negativity they experience in disclosing victimization to others). There have been a number of attempts to provide fraud-specific support services. For example, in Australia at one point there were face-to-face victim support groups in operation, dedicated specifically to fraud victims. Unfortunately, all of these support groups have ceased operation.

Cross et al. (2016b) advocate the needs of fraud victims, as drawn from the victim narratives. These include:

  • being listened to openly when reporting to authorities and being treated with respect and sensitivity and not blamed for having been victimized;

  • having an acknowledgment that a crime has been committed against them;

  • reducing channels of reporting to ensure that victims are directed to appropriate agencies as quickly and simply as possible;

  • having official agency staff trained in dealing with victims of fraud, and knowing appropriate ways in which their cases can be handled;

  • having open and honest support and understanding from friends and relatives;

  • knowing what support services are available, how and where these can be obtained, and at what cost;

  • ensuring that professional support providers are trained in dealing with victims of financial abuse; and

  • obtaining professional support not only in regard to the consequences of victimization, but also for the reasons that precipitated the fraud, such as relationship difficulties or addictions (taken from Cross et al., 2016b, p. 7).

While this study indicated that a majority of victims did not access support services, of those who did, many used existing support services and networks that they were accessing for other aspects of their lives. Very few initiated new relationships with either formal or informal supports directly in relation to their fraud victimization. An example is a fraud victim who was previously seeing a psychologist or counselor to assist with an unrelated matter, but who was able to confide in the counselor about their fraud victimization and therefore gain positive support for their recovery.

An example of a fraud-specific program is the Senior Support Unit (SSU), based at the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre (CAFC) in North Bay, Ontario. The SSU is a telephone peer support service that uses older volunteers to contact older victims of fraud across Canada or those who may be vulnerable to fraudulent attempts. The service is triggered by a report to the CAFC, either by the victims themselves or by a third party. The SSU volunteer then calls the person to offer an empathetic ear to her or his situation. Similarly, an examination of the benefits of the SSU indicates that from the perspective of the volunteers, they feel the value of their service includes the ability of the victims to share their stories and experiences with a nonjudgmental person, a reassurance that they are not alone and that they are not at fault, and an ability to gain advice and support on how to best prevent revictimization in the future (Cross, 2017b).

For victims of fraud who experience a compromise of their identity in some way, there are a small number of services dedicated to this area of victimization. iDCare is the national support service for victims of identity theft across Australia and New Zealand, and they offer a confidential counseling service for victims of identity theft as well as individual plans for recovery of their identity. Credit monitoring services also exist, which enable individuals (whether they are victims or not) to either place a freeze on anyone opening new accounts or attempting to obtain new lines of credit, or that simply alert them every time someone does this in their name. These include Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax, many of which are global entities. In some cases, victims who experience a compromise of their data through a third-party data breach are offered the use of a credit monitoring service as a means of protecting their identity from unauthorized use (e.g., the response by Equifax itself to a data breach of 143 million Americans in 2017 [Australian Institute of Company Directors, 2017]), but in other circumstances, individuals are required to pay a fee for this service.

Policing Online Fraud

There are many unique challenges that hinder police in their ability to effectively respond to online fraud (Cross & Blackshaw, 2015). The first is the virtual nature of the internet. Policing has traditionally been based upon a physical environment whereby the proximity of victims and offenders as well as crime scenes and any evidence is limited, whereas the internet allows for victims and offenders to be located in different jurisdictions and the crime scene and any evidence stemming from it can be located across multiple sites, servers, and jurisdictions. Police agencies are not well equipped to deal with the complexities that arise from online offenses, which includes inadequate legislation, from which police derive all of their authority and power (Brenner, 2006; Finklea, 2013).

Second, there is the problem of jurisdiction (Button, 2012). A large number of online offenses are perpetrated by an offender located in one country targeted toward a victim in a second country. With the example of fraud, victims may then send funds to a third or even fourth country. In addition, data can also be held and transmitted across multiple jurisdictions. Policing is also very strongly founded upon geographical boundaries and concepts of sovereignty and territoriality (Brenner, 2006; Speer, 2000; Svantesson, 2016). Thus, police do not have the authority or ability to exercise their powers in a state or country outside of their own jurisdiction. While there are agreements in place that enable the sharing of information and intelligence and cross-border policing initiatives, these are cumbersome processes and are not usually timely in their operation or implementation (Finklea, 2013). This frustrates police and victims alike.

Third is the technical nature of many online fraud offenses. The skills and knowledge base required to understand and effectively investigate these offenses occurring within a virtual environment build upon skills obtained by police in their traditional training. While all police could be expected to have a basic level of understanding of online offenses, there are specialist skills and expertise that are involved and therefore required to be gained by police. Logistically, offenders also have access to the latest technology and are not constrained by any administration or bureaucratic processes. Police and other organizations are not always as agile and able to keep up to date with trends and new developments in the field. Police are also required to work within the confines of relevant legislation, and in cases where such legislation has not been updated or is arguably irrelevant to current and emerging technologies, it presents a barrier to effective action. While problematic in developed countries, these challenges and difficulties are often exacerbated in developing countries where resources are not as accessible or prevalent.

Lastly, identity crime is a problem that affects many. Offenders are unlikely to use their genuine identities to perpetrate offenses. Rather, it is common for offenders to steal the identity of a genuine person or to create an entirely fictitious identity to commit their crimes. In an online environment, it is difficult to verify and authenticate a person’s identity, and for police, this creates additional challenges of identifying an individual and linking them to a particular account, transaction, or activity.

In an attempt to overcome some of these challenges, some innovations have been implemented in the way that police have attempted to target online fraud offenses. One example is the use of financial intelligence to proactively target potential victims (Cross, 2016). Financial intelligence has been used by three jurisdictions in Australia to target residents sending money to known high-risk West African countries. This involved police and consumer protection agencies using available data on financial transactions between Australia and West Africa in order to proactively identify potential victims of fraud. These individuals would then receive a letter notifying them that they may be victims of fraud and a request to stop sending money. If further transactions were observed months later, a second letter was sent to the individual, again notifying them that they are likely a victim of fraud and requesting them to cease all transactions. It is argued that there are two main benefits associated with the use of financial intelligence in this way: first, it overcomes the need for individuals to recognize their own victimization; and second, it provides a genuine means of victims to engage with authorities in a safe and confident manner (Cross & Blackshaw, 2015). This overcomes some of the negativity associated with reporting online fraud and engaging with authorities in other contexts (Button et al., 2009; Cross et al., 2016b). Limited evaluations have been conducted on the effectiveness of this approach, although the available evidence is positive (Cross, 2016; Cross & Blackshaw, 2015). However, at the time of writing, the use of financial intelligence to proactively identify fraud victims had ceased on all jurisdictions except South Australia (ACCC, 2017a; Emerson, 2017).

Prevention of Online Fraud

There is no universal prevention message targeted across the globe. Of the prevention messages that do exist, many are focused on individual behaviors and exclude the role of the offender. The Little Black Book of Scams (LBBS) is a publication that was developed in Australia by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC). The LBBS has had significant influence on the global message of prevention. The LBBS has been adopted by both the United Kingdom and Canada through The Little Book of Big Scams (Metropolitan Police) and The Little Black Book of Scams: Your Guide to Protection Against Fraud (Competition Bureau Canada). Both were explicitly adopted from the original Australian version. In this way, the LBBS can be seen as a current example of a victim-oriented approach to primary prevention in that it targets the whole population and attempts to provide a wealth of information on all possible fraudulent approaches.

This approach is evident in the number of categories of fraud covered in the book and the depth of detail provided in each instance. As stated earlier, the plotlines of fraudulent approaches are endless. Offenders will use whatever situation and scenario they need to develop trust and build rapport with a victim and then to maintain their power and control in gaining compliance from the victim. While there are common approaches used by offenders, there will always be exceptions. Therefore, the approach of using a high level of detail to educate people about potential warning signs and things to look out for is argued to be ineffective (Cross & Kelly, 2016). For example, for many years police and other agencies warned individuals against sending money to West African countries (such as Nigeria). Further, authorities warned against using a remittance agency (such as Western Union or MoneyGram) as these were popular methods of defrauding a person. However, what this advice fails to consider is the request for money that comes through from an offender to transfer an amount of money via a bank transfer to an account in the victim’s own country (or a non-African country). In many cases, the victim does not correlate this with potential fraud, and transfers the money.

Consequently, it is argued that current prevention approaches contain too much “white noise” or irrelevant details that are not central to the fraud (Cross & Kelly, 2016). While the details and context are likely to be unique to all fraud victims, the request for money or personal information is the only aspect that is common across all approaches. The success or failure of all prevention messages culminates in a decision by the victim to send money or not send money as a result of that request. Therefore, it is argued that prevention messages should focus on the request for money or personal information rather than the pathways and details that lead to that request (Cross & Kelly, 2016). Such messages are likely to have more success than trying to educate society on the variety of fraudulent approaches, particularly given the fact that offenders are currently changing their methods in order to maximize their success rate.

Targeting the Enablers of Online Fraud

While prevention efforts focused on the individual as well as society as a whole are important, there is also a need to examine the enablers of fraud, or the mechanisms that facilitate fraud to occur. There are two main categories of enablers that are canvassed here: the financial institutions that enable transactions to occur, and the telecommunications providers that enable communications and interactions to take place. Each of these are detailed.

Financial Institutions

The overriding goal of most fraudulent requests focuses on the receipt of money. A large amount of fraud is perpetrated by offenders deceiving victims into sending money, as well as the use of money mules (see “Other Consequences of Online Fraud” ), who receive and forward on fraudulent funds from other victims. At the heart of this activity is the role of banks, other financial institutions, and remittance agencies. Strict anti-money laundering legislation and provisions are in place across the globe to target the criminal use of money (see Financial Action Task Force, 2018). These can be useful in enabling banks to detect suspicious transactions and also identify potential offenders and victims (in the case of money mules). However, they are not impenetrable, and both victims and offenders can modify their behavior in order to circumvent or avoid restrictions placed upon them. For example, Cross et al. (2016b) note in their Australian study of online fraud victims that in instances where victims were denied the ability to transfer money or were questioned about the details of their transaction, many changed their behaviors by going to a different location (one where they were not known to staff) or by sending a different amount of money to avoid further questions. Offenders also know how these anti-money laundering rules work and can provide detailed instructions to victims on how to successfully complete their requested transactions without drawing suspicion. Further, there is tension between the level of convenience demanded by customers who wish to be able to transfer funds successfully with little administration hurdles, and the need of agencies to put in place tough processes that reduce the ability of offenders to exploit these legitimate practices for their own criminal purposes. Based on known evidence, the balance appears to have been in favor of convenience and efficient transactions (weighted toward the offender) rather than on investigating suspicious transactions of customers (who are victims in many cases).

In recent years, significant court rulings in the United States have been made against two large remittance agencies: MoneyGram and Western Union. In 2009, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) successfully charged MoneyGram for the fraudulent actions of its own agents in facilitating fraudulent transactions between 2004 and 2008. It argued that MoneyGram was made aware of the actions of these employees by both police and other employees but failed to take any action against the employees to rectify the situation. MoneyGram was ordered to pay US$18 million to be used to provide redress for consumers as well as implement better education and training policies regarding their agents (FTC, 2009). However, in 2012 MoneyGram again admitted to “criminally aiding and abetting wire fraud and failing to maintain an effective anti-money laundering program” (Department of Justice, 2012). In this instance, the charges were successfully brought against them and MoneyGram was forced to forfeit US$100 million to be distributed to victims via the Department of Justice’s Victim Asset Recovery program (Department of Justice, 2012).

In 2017, Western Union also had action taken against it successfully by the FTC. The complaint lodged by the FTC cited the large number of customer grievances toward Western Union relating to fraudulent transactions between 2004 and 2015. The FTC lawsuit alleged that Western Union failed to take appropriate action in seeking to prevent fraud (FTC, 2017a). This prosecution resulted in a US$586 million payment from Western Union to partially refund victims worldwide (FTC, 2017b). Further, the company has been ordered to improve their practices to reduce fraud and to comply with anti-money laundering legislation.

Successful prosecutions against both MoneyGram and Western Union highlight the negligent practices that have existed within these companies for many years and the ways that remittance agencies and the agents that work for them have facilitated fraud victimization to occur across the globe.

Telecommunications Providers

Offenders are increasingly using a variety of telecommunications platforms to contact their victims. Much discussion has focused on the use of mobile phone companies to block known fraudulent telephone numbers, as well as internet service providers to block known email addresses and websites that are used for fraudulent activity. In both cases, the company is seen to provide an intermediary service, and there are calls to increase the level of responsibility on these service providers to identify and disrupt fraudulent activity. However, a counterargument positions the individual users as responsible for their own actions in using the services provided and advocates against the platforms being held responsible for the activities of its users (Umeh, 2009). This issue is ongoing and, as of 2018, does not have any concrete resolution.

Related to this issue is the role of social networking platforms and dating websites that connect offenders to potential victims across the globe. In recent years, offenders have realized the power of social networking and have effectively used the development of relationships (romantic and otherwise) to perpetrate their offenses. For example, in Australia, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) (2017b) noted that in 2016, reports indicated that 45% of fraudulent approaches were via phone calls and text messages, with a further 47% made through online channels (such as email, social networking, and the internet more broadly).

As a result, much pressure has been applied to platforms to improve screening practices in an attempt to prevent fraudulent or illegitimate profiles being active in the first place, as well as to block and remove those that have been identified as fraudulent by victims and other users. While many platforms do take proactive steps to address safety concerns for their users (see, e.g., Freeman, 2012) and all have safety information and warnings about romance fraud on their sites (albeit visibility and accessibility differ), offenders have inevitably developed techniques to overcome these barriers and continue to target victims globally. Offenders will also isolate their victims early on and entice them off official websites and onto other platforms that overcome the safety features enacted on their platforms (see Cross et al. [2018] and Whitty [2013a, 2013b] for a summary of techniques offenders employ against victims).


This article analyzes the complexity of fraud, particularly in a virtual context, and the many associated challenges it poses to society. While fraud is one of the oldest offenses, technology has had a transformative effect in terms of enabling offenders to target exponentially more victims and in more effective (and anonymous) ways. This use of technology has resulted in a corresponding increase in the number of individuals who experience victimization and suffer a combination of devastating financial and nonfinancial harms. Little research exists on offenders outside of a Nigerian context, though the global nature of online fraud highlights this research gap as a significant one. Current responses to online fraud across policing, prevention, and victim support aspects are also in need of greater attention and focus. In part, such responses can only be achieved through negating the impacts of the shame and stigma associated with fraud as well as the high level of victim blaming currently being experienced.

Online fraud is unlikely to resolve itself in coming years and will, in fact, continue to debilitate the lives of millions globally. While there are pockets of work and research being done in this area which promote positive impacts, it is clear that greater priority needs to be afforded to online fraud across all agencies in the fraud justice network.

Further Reading

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Button, M., Lewis, C., & Tapley, J. (2009). A better deal for fraud victims. London, UK: Centre for Counter Fraud Studies.Find this resource:

Button, M., Tapley, J., & Lewis, C. (2012). The “fraud justice network” and the infra-structure of support for individual fraud victims in England and Wales. Criminology and Criminal Justice, 13(1), 37–61.Find this resource:

Cross, C. (2015). No laughing matter: Blaming the victim of online fraud. International Review of Victimology, 21(2), 187–204.Find this resource:

Cross, C., Richards, K., & Smith, R. (2016). Improving the response to online fraud victims: An examination of reporting and support. Canberra: Australian Institute of Criminology.Find this resource:

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