If it hasn’t happened already, it’s likely that each of us will be the mark of an attempted online scam of one kind or another. You may imagine some shadowy cabal of Nigerian gangsters targeting naïve senior citizens unschooled in internet security or anonymous-style hackers trolling for credit card information, and you probably wouldn’t be too far off.
But what does it mean when the face on the other end of the scam looks a bit more familiar? What if it’s your own?
That’s a question I was confronted with when I was contacted out of the blue by a recently divorced German woman on Facebook claiming to have been involved in a months-long burgeoning romance with a man she had never met. That man was me—sort of. Her broken English only served to heighten the sense of disconnect from reality as she explained the details of her affair:
“normally it is not my way to contact an absolut strange man at facebook, but it might be, that this i want you to tell is a little bit interresting for you. first sorry, because of my bad english, but i am a german and not otfen using english words. so, now the little story i want you to tell. you are not really a stranger for me, okay only your fotos are not strange, because a few month ago i got a friendship request from a man at facebook. i was a little bit curious to know more about this man, he sent me some fotos, fotos from you. now, four month later i found out the real identity of the man showing at this fotos are you and i found out that the man, who uses your fotos is an nigerian scammer.”
My initial reaction to reading this was one of bemusement. Naturally someone would use a photo of me in a situation like this, I thought. Aren’t I the handsome fellow?
The role of the scammer in these ploys is to engender sympathy from the victim in order to convince them to send money. What better way to inspire sympathy than through personal guilt?
But after going back and forth with the woman over Facebook, it occurred to me that maybe I was actually the mark of a meta-scam wherein the real scammer is falsely claiming to have been scammed by someone claiming to look like me in order to get the type of sympathy that these sorts of romance scams rely on. Although none of the internet security experts I asked had ever heard of that approach in particular, there was a perverted sort of logic to it. The role of the scammer in these ploys is to engender sympathy from the victim in order to convince them to send money. What better way to inspire sympathy than through personal guilt? After all, wasn’t it my fault in a way, for making this woman fall in love? This poor, heartbroken woman had convinced herself she was in love with a man who looked exactly like me.
Did that implicate me in her predicament? It’s vanity, after all, that makes any of us susceptible to these crimes in the first place. What else besides that and loneliness would compel us to believe that someone across the world we’d never met would fall head over heels in love with us over email?
Romance gambits are one of the fastest growing and, sadly, most effective scams on the internet, responsible for well over $50 million in losses in the United States alone in 2011 as reported to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center. And those are just the 5,663 crimes that were reported. The ensuing shame that can result from realizing you were a victim of such a crime or the stubbornly romantic nature of the broken-hearted dupes, ensures that many more instances go unreported. In other countries, like Australia, investigations have found some $10 million a month lost to online dating scammers.
As the ICC explains, the nature of the scam preys on the loneliness of online singles, the majority of whom are over 40 and divorced or widowed, in order to lure them into a complicated scheme that begins with declarations of love but soon shifts to requests for money to overcome financial emergencies.
It’s an offshoot of the classic Nigerian prince gambit, where many of these schemes are believed to originate from. Even the least internet savvy among us are wise to that unrealistic con by this point, but love — that greatest con of them all — seems to be too hard to resist. That’s what makes them particularly sinister. A 2012 University of Leicester study on the psychology of online romance scams points out “victims of the romance scam receive a ‘double hit’ from this crime: the loss of money as well as the loss of a relationship.”
One of the easiest ways to affect this sort of scam has been through Facebook, where—despite constant reminders to the contrary—many of us still operate on an all-are-welcome approach when it comes to who we let into our social circles. Facebook issued a report in early 2018 noting it had disabled a combined 1.3 billion fake accounts in the previous two quarters, and the company has estimated that up to 4 percent of its monthly users are fake.
That’s where my convoluted brush with this scam began, in a vertigo-inducing online fake-identity existential crisis. In my case, however, it wasn’t my information or identity that were being stolen in the traditional sense of the crime but rather were used, hypothetically, to steal others’ identities and money.
I continued trading messages with her all the same, though, in a sort of perverse mirroring of her ordeal.
Here I was confronted with evidence of my vanity at work. I was the equivalent of one of those bikini babes you see on fake Facebook profiles used to lure horny dudes to accept their friend requests. Then again, a really savvy criminal probably wouldn’t want to use the image of someone too good-looking—so, wait, does that mean I’m only average-looking after all? You can see how this has played havoc with my sense of self. Not anywhere near as much, however, as it did for her.
At least, I think.
I mentioned the story as a curiosity to my friends, many of whom reacted with a laugh and cautioned me against taking the woman at face value, especially considering I never actually saw her face. Something about her story convinced me, nonetheless, that what she said was true, even as she subtly massaged my ego, dropped references to my writing, and conspired with me in a “isn’t this whole thing funny” in-joke.
Was she, in fact, scamming me? I asked her. She replied:
“sorry sir, I am not looking for a new relationship, but maybe it is a good idea to think about a new career, perhaps as a scammer. no, i enjoy my life like it is and what shall i take from you? an insider information where i can get the best drinks in boston? this i can read in one of your books, lol. i am not looking for revenge or profit. as i’d found out, that my black eyed loverboy using the fotos from an american writer, i couldn’t stop laughing. and if i had seen, that these are fotos from a boring person i would had never tried to get in contact with you.”
She explained how the scammer in her story moved the communication over to email—the traditional next step in the process—where he sent her romantic poems and declarations of undying love. Next they moved to online chat and finally to the telephone. She admitted, “I must say, he has really a soft and smooth voice. I still like the sound of his voice.”
That last bit there almost broke my heart. Despite her protestations to the contrary, I had been picturing a lonely woman who, even though she didn’t want to believe it, was actually beginning to fall in love with a man she had never met.
To no one’s surprise, the scammer explained that he was a successful contractor and that he had to fly to Nigeria, where he would have to pay the salaries of his new staff and a certain unexpected tax. He didn’t have the funds necessary as it turned out. Textbook stuff. She said she told him she would send the money but told me that she never had any intention of doing so. Her suspicions led her to an online scam forum, where she did a reverse search of the image of me she had been looking at, which revealed my true identity. Or the man in the picture’s true identity, whoever that guy is.
“Victims found it difficult to visualize the real criminal even after being told they were scammed.”
I wondered if that was even possible. I’m a moderately well-known media figure in some Northeastern U.S. circles but certainly not in Germany. Maybe I was being scammed after all. I continued trading messages with her all the same, though, in a sort of perverse mirroring of her ordeal. She’d apologize for her poor English as we talked back and forth over a couple weeks, but she seemed sarcastic and likable. I’m happily married, but I could have seen myself talking to her online more regularly under other circumstances.
“I’m sure my English is better than your German,” she joked. That’s an understatement, I said. The only German word I really know is “weltschmerz.”
Eventually she confronted her Nigerian lover with accusations of being a fraud, saying she had found verbatim texts of the notes he had sent to her in collections of common romance scam forums. He protested, of course, and grew angry, all while still insisting on his need for the money.
“You are doing this to yourself,” he wrote. “You don’t know when true love is in the air. You don’t know when people really mean something. When people really feel real love. Maybe it’s because you have been hurt too many times. Don’t let the internet mess with your head.”
That seemed like a particularly cruel twist of the knife.
And yet for some reason she maintained the illusion, even after all that. What did she want from him? He obviously wasn’t real. It had become like a game to her, this assumption of identities, but I could still detect sadness in her resignation.
I knew this romance was fake, he knew it, and she seemed to know it at that point, but I still couldn’t help but feeling somewhat upset. Not for this fraudulent love in particular, although I did sympathize with her, but for the idea of love itself. This was a hyper-contemporary update on the metaphor of love, our motivations for seeking out companionship, of persevering in the face of hardship, of the lies that we tell ourselves to accept the failures of the relationships that we have. In real-world love, it’s often hard to tell where our own identities end and our lovers’ begin. How often do people ask themselves if the love they’re feeling for someone is real or if it’s just a game?
“Maybe it was the wish of my thoughts,” she wrote, when I asked what kept her pushing for something that wasn’t real.
The University of Leicester study found denial to be a common emotion experienced by victims of these crimes: “Victims found it difficult to visualize the real criminal even after being told they were scammed.” Many described the experience as akin to being mentally raped.
“I started to live somewhere between reality and illusions, but my mind had ever warned me to believe in the truth,” she wrote me, “but he always was been here, when i needed anybody to talk about my problems, he made me believe that I can trust him. Where are the borders between truth and fake, sometimes closer than you think, sometimes without borders?”
It was comments like that that made me enjoy talking to this woman, whether she was actually real or not, and at this point, I will probably never find out for certain.
Meanwhile, I was waiting for the other shoe to drop, the hook that would pull me further into this scam than I already was. A request for money that she had given him, perhaps, or moving the conversation to email. It never came.
So why bother involving me in the first place, I wondered.
“i just wanted to tell you, that these pictures are abused to cheat people… You wanted to know more about this story and i have nothing to hide, you are a part of this story, or better, your face is a part of it. this is the reason, why i have contacted you. and the reason why i still have the contact to this scammer is, that i want to find answers. i always want to find answers for things, where other people need any answer. Perhaps i am searching for answers of my own way of life, really, i don’t know. Sometimes something inside my mind force me to do this and it’s confusing. And maybe i want to get an answer how he looks like, how he really looks like.”
In short, she wanted to interact with someone who was real. The man she had imagined didn’t exist, so perhaps I was the next best thing. Those are motivations that cross the boundaries of both geography and language. Motivations of identity and how who we love so often informs how we see ourselves.
“Oh, there is something else i want to tell you, i think you know more than only this german word,” she written to me after I’d confessed my linguistic ignorance, “i think you know it, without to know it, kindergarten. And isn’t the whole world sometimes like a kindergarten?”
It really is, because none of us have any idea who we are, and we’re all desperate for attention.
It was comments like that that made me enjoy talking to this woman, whether she was actually real or not, and at this point, I will probably never find out for certain. After initially accepting her Facebook friend request, I quickly reversed course and thought better of it. In the real world, love and friendship may be worth taking a chance on, but online it’s just too risky. You never know who anybody really is.
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