When gifting crosses the line to exploitation in relationships

Accepting luxury gifts may lead to a relationship power imbalance

In Summary

•  Usually if a guy gifts money a lot, it shows the relationship is only transactional

Online dating scam
Online dating scam

Men and women in romantic situations exchange gifts, with males expected to give more gifts to females they are interested in.

That being the case, what’s the difference between the gift exchange that occurs in relationships versus gifts extracted through manipulation and lies? Can we altogether avoid giving gifts as a show of love?

The art of exchanging gifts among romantic partners has spawned an entire industry of people pretending to fall in love and then stealing from victims. As it turns out, the best way to avoid getting scammed by someone you've just met is to avoid valuable gifts.

The National Council for Research on Women states in a brief that men who are emotionally committed to a woman don’t usually give money as a gift.

“Usually if a guy gives a woman money as a gift a lot, it may be a bit of a warning signal that the relationship is only transactional,” the Council advises.

Romance scams are usually initiated online and often prey on vulnerable people. Scammers create fake online profiles and attempt to build emotional attachments with potential victims to eventually exploit them. Victims can be both men and women.

Romance scammers often use dating apps to find victims, but it is also possible to be targeted with private messages on social media platforms. Official records show that 40 per cent of people who reported losing money to a romance scam in 2022 said the contact started on social media.

The violent death of 26-year-old Starlet Wahu in the first week of January this year once again highlights how people easily fall prey to financial and sexual exploitation through online dating apps. John Matara, the prime suspect in Wahu’s death, is alleged to have used a dating app to lure women then torture them and steal their money.


The traumatic experience of a woman who claims to have been a victim of Matara shows how complex romantic relationships can be. Speaking on Citizen TV, the woman narrated how she met Matara after he promised to give her Sh25,000 for spending a night with him. When they met at a lodging in Thika, Matara allegedly forced her to reveal her mobile money PIN.

If the date had gone as planned, the woman would have received her money and the world would not have known about it. This raises questions on whether online dating is making it too easy for people to engage in casual, sex sometimes for money. Critics of online dating say it fosters artificial relationships of people pretending to be something they are not.

On the other hand, supporters of online dating argue that meeting someone online is similar to meeting a new person in a place of worship, on public transport or among one's neighbours. You wouldn't give your money to the first person you met on the streets, so why would you give it to a stranger you met online?

George Muriuki, a Nairobi resident, says he has not met any suspicious characters online. In his experience, the only challenge he has seen with online dating is that of conflicting expectations.

"My worst relationships were with people I met through my social circles," Muriuki says.

There are many examples of people who met online who went on to have successful relationships. The key principle to online dating is learning to avoid romance scams.

According to cyber security firm Norton, romance scammers fabricate fake social media profiles to connect with potential victims. They will strike up a conversation and seek to build a relationship through regular chats.

“Once the victim starts to trust the romance scammer and believe they have a truthful relationship, the cybercriminal will make up a story, ask for money, and vanish,” the firm says.

A romance scammer may ask you to send money for things like travel expenses, medical expenses, family or personal emergencies and gambling debts. In Kenya, the most common romance scam is “kutuma fare” (send bus fare), where the scammer asks for money to travel for a physical meeting, only to cut off all contact after receiving the cash.  

Kaspersky, another cyber security company, warns against revealing too much personal information in dating profiles or to people you don't know well. Scammers can exploit details like your last name or place of work to manipulate you or commit identity theft.

“Never send money or gift cards or disclose your bank details to someone you’ve only met online,” Kaspersky warns.

If you agree to meet in person with someone you have been chatting with online, tell family and friends where you are going and meet in a public place. It is not advisable to travel outside the country to meet an online friend for the first time.

Romance scams are not just run by individuals, they are also perpetrated by large gangs of organised criminals. In 2022, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs warned Kenyans against travelling to Thailand, Myanmar and Laos for jobs being advertised online. Kenyans who thought they were going to work in hotels were forced to become romance scammers. A survivor told the BBC she worked in a vast call centre, where they were continuously threatened with having their organs harvested.


Genuine romance does not demand excessive gifts. Research published in the New Scientist magazine shows that whenever males gave valuable gifts too often, the females would start to exploit them. Instead, wooing girls with costly but essentially worthless gifts – such as theatre tickets or expensive dinners – is a winning courtship strategy for both sexes.

“Females can assess how serious or committed a man plans to be and men can ensure they are not just seducing 'gold-diggers' – girls who take valuable presents with no intention of accepting subsequent dates,” the article states.

Furthermore, psychologists have found that experiential purchases – like theatre tickets – make people happier in the long run than material purchases.

These findings are corroborated by survey results published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, proving that women do not always react favourably to luxury gifts. Instead, women are wary that accepting luxury gifts may lead to a relationship power imbalance, which prompts less favourable reactions to such gifts.

Therefore, while expensive gifts show the giver’s high earning power and social status, the receiver of the gifts may feel uncomfortable about it, especially when the relationship is in its early stages. The survey results are a reminder that it is not necessary to spend too much money trying to impress a romantic interest.

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