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Accepted Paper:

How not to fall in love: credibility and mistrust in online romance scams  
Jan Beek (University Mainz)

Paper short abstract:

Romance scammers defraud their victims by writing credible love letters. Their recipients react by scrutinizing such online representations more and more, creating new practices of mistrust. The paper employs cyber fraud as a lens to explore issues of mistrust in online, translocal interactions.

Paper long abstract:

The internet enables people to interact with others detached from their location and their identity to a larger extent than other forms of communication. Social positions that can be recognized in face-to-face interactions - like class, ethnicity, gender and age - can more easily be altered online. Cyber frauds, especially romance scams on dating websites, make apparent how much online interactions involve and require mistrust. Cybercriminals, often from West Africa, write romantic texts that are credible to their audience. They create this credibility by drawing on globally shared idioms of romantic love. However, romance scams are not one-directional persuasion strategies but interactions. The scammers' counterparts scrutinize their emails and contest implied understandings of romantic love.

Based on fieldwork in Ghana and on a close reading of two hacked scammers' email accounts, the paper first explores how scammers write credible texts. Beginning with their first email, scammers create the credibility of these texts by intertextuality. They have to recognize, select and adapt elements of a romantic practice that is markedly different from their own. By using these practices they also undermine the trust in online self-representations. Secondly, the paper develops how victims believe in, question or reject the scammers' stories in the course of the email interaction; the manipulative use of social imaginaries challenges the victims' world view. These victims, and users of dating websites in general, have begun to develop new codes of mistrust to deal with the emerging instability of online identities and symbols.

Panel P061
The anthropology of mistrust
  Session 1