We know romantic scammers swindle thousands of dollars from victims, but the heavy emotional toll receives less attention. Alison Cutler, a recent scamming victim, tells her story.
It all started innocently enough – well, if you are as innocent as me, it did. I received a friend request on Facebook Messenger, ignored it for weeks, then, curiosity piqued in an idle moment, I clicked on the request. I am not exactly flooded with requests for anything online other than eminently resistible offers from weight loss companies, so I did what I considered a thorough investigation: I checked out his profile, saw he was rather handsome, with photos of him in theatre scrubs and skiing. I accepted his friend request.
I heard nothing and thought no more about it. After all, I lead a busy life full to the brim with—with what? Work and friends and lots of free time. I’m a widow in my mid-sixties, single for over 20 years. Twenty years of tables set for one, no romantic assignations other than with my geriatric cat, an orgasm-free zone, the centre of no one’s life, no flowers, no chocolates. I told myself I was happy.
Late one night, tucked up in bed with my electric blanket at volcanic levels, my Messenger app pinged. Instantly roused, I opened the message.
“Hi Alison,” it read. “How are you?”
I have never been in the habit of responding to complete strangers online – I’ve read all the warnings – but in that moment I was flattered that someone had taken the trouble to choose me from the millions of faces online, and cared about how I was doing. I said I was fine but asked who he was, and he said he had seen my profile and was interested in friendship. The possibility of a new relationship, especially as I had so few friends here after fifty years overseas, was enough for me to abandon my native caution.
He told me he was an orthopaedic surgeon working for the UN in Yemen; a widow who lost his wife to leukaemia with a son at boarding school in the UK. He was lonely and just wanted to find a friend. I thought his story was credible and interesting, and I was impressed by his emotional openness. I sensed a vulnerable fellow traveller.
He insisted I download the Google Chat app and I obliged. The conversation had me in its thrall from the get-go. He said he thought I was beautiful, couldn’t wait to kiss my lips and longed for a time when he could wake up next to me. Suddenly a friendship had turned into a full-blown romance. The compliments fell thick and fast and I was in seventh heaven. This handsome, successful man found me attractive. He wanted to have a relationship with me. He already considered me the most interesting, intelligent woman he’d ever met.
When I look back at the pleasure I took from these transparently ridiculous compliments, I blush to the roots of my thinning, grey hair.
I was beside myself with happiness; in a state of trembling anticipation like a fresh-faced young girl on her first date. I would wait impatiently for the seductive ping of his messages, and he could message for England. He asked lots of questions, went from “dear” to “darling” to “sweetheart” in no time, and said he would teach me to dance. When he said he couldn’t wait for his son Harry to meet me, I took this as a sign of deep parental love.
The messages flew back and forth, each more florid than the last. Within a couple of days I had convinced myself, with no difficulty or hesitation, that paradise was within reach. And I was consumed. I neglected my work, forgot to eat, and lived for the next ping. I revealed my secrets such as they were, giving him copious details about my life and laying myself open like a lamb to the slaughter – or an ageing ewe to the abattoir.
It all seems so ridiculous with the wisdom of hindsight. There were more red flags than a Soviet rally. His name was curious, and he wouldn’t agree to a video or audio chat (the internet in Yemen “made this impossible”), and he was curiously ignorant about Western culture. His responses were often unrelated to what I asked, but I was too punch-drunk with love to see this as evasiveness. Confirmation bias combined with my head-over-heels state make every red flag disappear.
One evening as we chatted lovingly, he suddenly asked if I would mind purchasing an Apple Gift card so he could top up his internet. I didn’t baulk, particularly as I couldn’t bear to stop messaging. It was well after midnight, but I said I would go and buy one immediately. He said he was much obliged, and could I do it straight away as he didn’t want to lose the connection. Also, would I mind getting the $500 card rather than the $200 one?
It was as if I’d taken part in an ice-bucket challenge. I suddenly remembered all the warnings I had read, those cautionary tales of men and women taken to the cleaners, tales I dismissed as the preserve of the foolish, the gullible, the desperate.
I told him my doubts immediately and asked for proof of identity, none of which he could provide. You can imagine the protestations and the appeals to our undying love. I did a quick search for his name, location and occupation – why had I not done this earlier? Sickeningly and immediately, there were sites galore alerting the unwary to this common romance scam.
I was stung, in physical and emotional pain as I realised I’d fallen victim to a textbook scam.
I blocked and reported him on Messenger and Google Chat and notified NetSafe. When he sent me an email vowing to murder me in my bed, I reported him to the police. These actions were easy. What wasn’t easy was being jerked out of the heady state of being in love; the realisation that I’d succumbed so easily and wholeheartedly to the transparent deceit of a stranger.
I realise now I was lying to myself for a long time, hiding my loneliness beneath a veneer of self-reliance. That served me well as I raised three children after the death of my husband, but I write these words now shaken by my complete gullibility.
Today I received an email from the scammer. It reads: “My love, I miss you 💔💔💔”
My response? Silence.