|Sofija Stefanovic - The Guardian - 17-02-11
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On 2 February, at the cusp of Valentine's Day, the Los Angeles sheriff's department warned of the "growing criminal epidemic" of romance scams during a community meeting called Love Hurts. Romance scams are a type of online fraud, in which criminals pose as desirable partners on dating sites or email, win the hearts of their victims and end up fleecing them of their money. Lt Antonio Leon said the forum's name was tongue-in-cheek, "but the truth of the matter is that love really does hurt, for some people".
According to the Internet Crime Complaint Center, last year romance scam victims lost $173m in California alone. Ouch. And that's just the reported scams; victims are often too embarrassed to report they've been duped.
So how is it possible people still fall for them? That's the attitude I used to have - until I got involved with a scammer myself, and things got messy.
I met "Cindy" via my spam folder, not long after I moved to New York City from Melbourne. "If you would be interested for a serious friendship hit me back with more details about yourself. I am 26 years old, I live alone in Senegal." Yes, Cindy was obviously a scammer. And knowing this, I got back to her.
Let me back up. I'd become fascinated with scams back when I lived in Australia. Back then I was researching them for a TV show. Scams were a hot-button topic, and I went to a victims' support group to learn more. That's where I met a widower named Bill.
"I just wanted someone to hold me," Bill said, explaining why he joined a dating site in the first place. He met someone, fell in love, and was eventually left bankrupt. Bill and I became friends. He was a smart, worldly man, and I was baffled as to how he could have fallen for a scam.
Just before I left Australia, Bill and I celebrated his 80th birthday. We talked about his scam, and Bill said something that stuck with me. He said that in the back of his mind he knew he was being scammed, but he kept sending money because couldn't bear for his relationship to end. This fascinated me - it seemed his loneliness overrode his common sense. Even as Bill and I spoke about the detrimental effects of scams, I was pretty sure he was still sending money overseas. I suspected that when I left his place, he'd jump online and give himself over to his scam once more.
Even as Bill and I spoke about the detrimental effects of scams, I was pretty sure he was still sending money overseas
Not long after, I moved to New York with my boyfriend, Michael. Michael went to work in an office and made new friends, while I stayed home and researched scams. I was haunted by Bill's story, and I wanted to write about lovelorn victims like him, but I also wanted to find out more about perpetrators - those who leech victims of their money.
And that's when Cindy's email arrived. I got a notification that Cindy wanted to talk via Gchat, and voilą, I thought: I had my guinea pig scammer.
In customized curly rainbow font, Cindy asked what the weather was like in Mumbai, which made me realize she had her wires crossed between me and someone else she was scamming. I decided there was no need to correct her, for now, so I Googled the weather in Mumbai.
Cindy sent a photo: a pretty, ponytailed woman about my age, with a full build, leaning against a car. Scammers often steal photographs online, and though I knew that the "Cindy" I was chatting to was probably not the woman in the photo, it was easier to attach a face to the name. So whenever I communicated with Cindy, I pictured the woman leaning on the car.
The soccer World Cup was starting, and in Australia I'd always watched with friends. Cindy said she wasn't into soccer, but that she'd make an effort to watch because I liked it, and that's the sort of thing people in relationships did for each other. According to her, we were dating.
So while my boyfriend was at work, my Senegalese girlfriend and I watched soccer and chatted online. When my boyfriend wasn't at work, I tactfully closed my laptop, because I preferred for him not to think I was chatting to a scammer all day.
Cindy was either the most attentive person I have ever semi-dated (ready with a "hi babe!" the second I came online) or she was a team of people. I knew scammers often worked for syndicates, taking shifts, communicating with dozens of victims at once, referring to dossiers ("she is into World Cup soccer", mine might say). Whether Cindy was a lone wolf or a group, I took comfort knowing I was chatting with someone real - which was better than talking to my dogs - so I'd rattle off my opinions on Brazil's team into a chat box and wait for Cindy's immediate ping of response.
And then, one day, Cindy asked for my photo.
This was a problem, as she still thought I was a middle-aged Indian man. I decided to come clean. "I am a woman. I hope you won't be angry with me," I said, assuming she would dump me and move on to a more trustworthy victim.
But Cindy surprised me by saying she'd been brought up believing women should be with men, but that she had fallen in love with me, and was willing to take a chance on a same-sex relationship if I was. I found this simultaneously funny, confusing and endearing. She asked for a photo, and, slightly baffled by this turn of events, against all reason, I sent one.
That night she sent an email:
"The feelings I have for you is true and will last for Eternity as long as you accept me in your heart just as I have accepted you.
"I love you. I Love Every little thing about you".
"I love your Cute smile, your magical eyes, and the sound of your words."
And though I was fully aware that Cindy had cut and pasted this from somewhere, and I knew that a scammer's job was to stroke victims' egos, I couldn't help but glance at the photo I sent Cindy to see if my eyes did indeed look magical.
Cindy asked me to call. Suddenly my scammer had a voice, which didn't sound like that of a criminal, but of a tired woman keeping her voice down. A baby started crying and Cindy was quick to say it was someone else's kid. I wondered if she was lying. Does she have a partner, I thought, or is she a single parent?
Then Cindy told me she was being evicted, and she needed $140. And there it was: I'd been expecting her to ask for money all along, except suddenly I wasn't ready for it. Cindy was no longer a random email in my spam folder. She was a person on the other end of the line, asking for help. It was suddenly hard to just say "no".
Instead, I beat around the bush like a coward. I pretended I had a friend whom I'd told about Cindy, and the friend suggested Cindy might be a scammer. Cindy acted outraged at the suggestion, and our conversation petered out, with me saying I couldn't spare the money.
I Googled Senegal and discovered that almost 50% of its population lived in poverty. Who's to say Cindy wasn't being evicted? I thought. Right on cue, an email came from Cindy. "My life is not easy," she said. "I am trying to survive as a responsible girl. I do not go out to sell my body like some other girls do here."
I knew scammers rarely got arrested; it was a relatively safe crime. If one of the other options was sex work, I could see that chatting to amorous westerners on the internet would be more appealing. Could I blame her for what she was doing? I felt like a jerk for stringing her along.
I decided to write an email, from the real me, to the real Cindy. I intended to tell her a bit about me, but I found myself telling her a lot. I told her my family came to Australia when the war in Yugoslavia began, and that my dad died when I was a child. I wrote that when we moved to Australia, my parents never thought we'd be split up again, yet I'd voluntarily moved to New York City, and I felt guilty. I said I felt lonely and friendless.
I wasn't sure why I told Cindy all this, but in hindsight I think it was because I wanted her to like me. And as I wrote, I found myself tearing up. I told her I didn't blame her for being a scammer, and that I wanted her to be honest with me. I said that if she told me about her real life, about scamming, I would find some money to send her.
She wrote back ignoring most of what I said, emphasizing that she was not a scammer - and including her Western Union details. I felt a pang of annoyance and embarrassment for opening up to her. Did she think I was an idiot? Cindy and I went back and forth playing this game: me offering money for the truth, and Cindy feigning ignorance. We were at an impasse.
Finally, Cindy snapped. She called me a wicked, selfish woman. She said she never wanted to hear from me again. And for the first time in a long time, my computer went silent.
After Cindy dumped me, I felt like I understood Bill better. He knew in the back of his mind he was being scammed, but he chose to keep going so he wouldn't end up where I was. Bill had made excuses for his scammer, just like I'd made excuses for Cindy.
It reminded me one of those bad relationships where you're willing to overlook so much because you don't want to be alone.
Romance scams, I decided, weren't about being tricked by someone, they were about tricking yourself - telling yourself lies, to keep loneliness at bay.
Tags: Online dating, Dating, Valentine's Day,romance scam,Scams
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