Photo by Gregg Segal
*Names have been changed to protect identities
She wrote him first.
A short message sent on a Thursday evening in early December 2013, under the subject line: Match?
You were listed as a 100% Match! I am not sure what a 100% match means … First, would you be interested in me. Check my profile.
Later, when she puzzled over their relationship, she'd remember this. She had contacted him, not the other way around. That had been a fateful move; it made everything easier for him. But she didn't know that yet.
So much of this was new. Amy* had never done this online-dating thing. It had been over two years since the death of her husband of 20 years; four, since she had lost her mother. Two sharp blows that had left her alone in her late 50s.
The marriage had been troubled; he was abusive. His cancer took him swiftly, before she had time to process what was happening. After the funeral, a grief counselor told her to make no sudden changes in her life for at least a year, and she followed that advice. Now she was all by herself in a house secluded at the end of a long gravel driveway. In the summer, when the trees leafed out, you couldn't even see the road or the neighbors.
Amy didn't feel isolated. She'd grown up here, in a conservative pocket of Virginia. Her brothers and their families lived nearby. When it came to meeting new people, however, her choices were limited. Friends urged her to try online dating. And, reluctantly, she did.
At first, she just tiptoed around the many dating sites, window-shopping in this peculiar new marketplace. The choices were overwhelming. It wasn't until the fall that Amy was ready to dive in. The holidays were coming, and she didn't want to face them alone.
She signed up for a six-month subscription to Match.com, the largest and one of the oldest dating services on the Web. She filled out a questionnaire and carefully crafted her profile. It would have been easy to burnish the truth, but she presented herself honestly, from her age (57) and hobbies ("dancing, rock collecting") to her financial status ("self sufficient"). The picture — outdoor photo, big smile — was real, and recent. And her pitch was straightforward:
Looking for a life partner … successful, spiritually minded, intelligent, good sense of humor, enjoys dancing and travelling. No games!
In those first weeks, she exchanged messages and a few calls with men, and even met some for coffee or lunch. But nothing clicked — either they weren't her type or they weren't exactly who they said they were. This seemed to be one of the problems with online dating. She resolved to be pickier, only contacting men who were closely matched — 90 percent or more, as determined by the algorithm pulling the strings behind her online search.
She didn't really understand how it worked. Back in college, she'd studied computer science and psychology, and she considered herself pretty tech-savvy. She had a website for her business, was on Facebook, carried a smartphone. But who knew exactly how these online dating services worked?
Then she saw this guy, the one with a mysterious profile name — darkandsugarclue. The photo showed a trim, silver-haired man of 61 with a salt-and-pepper beard and Wayfarer-style shades. He liked bluegrass music and lived an hour away. And something else: He was a "100% match." Whoever he was, the computer had decided he was the one.
More than a week went by with no answer. Then, this message appeared when she logged on to her account.
How are you doing today? Thank you so much for the email and I am really sorry for the delay in reply, I don't come on here often, smiles ... I really like your profile and I like what I have gotten to know about you so far. I would love to get to know you as you sound like a very interesting person plus you are beautiful. Tell me more about you. In fact it would be my pleasure if you wrote me at my email as I hardly come on here often.
He gave a Yahoo email address and a name, Duane. Some of the other men she'd met on Match had also quickly offered personal email addresses, so Amy didn't sense anything unusual when she wrote back to the Yahoo address from her own account. Plus, when she went back to look at darkandsugarclue's profile, it had disappeared.
Your profile is no longer there — did you pull it? As I am recalling the information you shared intrigued me. I would like to know more about you. Please email me with information about yourself and pictures so I can get to know you better.
Duane wrote right back, a long message that sketched a peripatetic life — he described himself as a "computer systems analyst" from North Hollywood, California, who grew up in Manchester, England, and had lived in Virginia for only five months. But much of the note consisted of flirty jokes ("If I could be bottled I would be called 'eau de enigma' ") and a detailed imaginary description of their first meeting:
It's 11 am when we arrive at the restaurant for brunch. The restaurant is a white painted weatherboard, simple but well-kept, set on the edge of a lake, separated from it by an expansive deck, dotted (not packed) with tables and comfortable chairs….
Amy was charmed — Duane was nothing like the local men she'd met so far. "You certainly have a great sense of humor and a way with words," she responded. And she was full of questions, about him and about online dating in general. "It is kind of a strange way to meet people," she wrote, "but it's not as cold as hanging around the produce department at the Kroger's."
She also mentioned the deception she'd already encountered on previous dates — "lots of false advertising or 'bait and switch' folks," she wrote. "It is amazing what people will do without conscience. I think it is always best to be whom we are and not mislead others."
By December 17, they had exchanged eight more emails. Duane suggested they both fill out questionnaires listing not only their favorite foods and hobbies but also personality quirks and financial status. He also sent her a link to a song, pop star Marc Anthony's "I Need You."
"It holds a message in it," he told her, "a message that delivers the exact way i feel for you."
Amy clicked on the link to the song, a torrid ballad that ends with the singer begging his lover to marry him. Then she rolled it back and listened to it again.
It's an ancient con
An impostor poses as a suitor, lures the victim into a romance, then loots his or her finances. In pre-digital times, romance scammers found their prey in the back pages of magazines, where fake personal ads snared vulnerable lonely hearts. But as financial crimes go, the love con was a rare breed, too time- and labor-intensive to carry out in large numbers. It could take months or years of dedicated persuasion to pull off a single sting.
That has changed. Technology has streamlined communication, given scammers powerful new tools of deceit and opened up a vast pool of potential victims. Web-based dating services first popped up in the mid-1990s and are now a $2 billion industry. As of December 2013, 1 in 10 American adults had used services such as Match.com, Plenty of Fish and eHarmony. The mainstreaming of online dating is a revolution in progress, one that's blurring the boundaries between "real" and online relationships. (AARP has joined this revolution, partnering with the online dating service HowAboutWe to launch AARP Dating in December 2012.)
But the online-dating boom has also fueled an invisible epidemic. According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), complaints about impostor ploys such as the romance scam more than doubled between 2013 and 2014. The FBI says that Americans lost some $82 million to online-dating fraud in just the last six months of 2014. And that figure is probably low, because many victims never report the crime — or even tell their closest friends and family members that it occurred.
Shame, fear of ridicule and the victim's own denial enforce this contract of silence. "Once people are invested in these, it's extremely difficult to convince them they are not dealing with a real person," says Steven Baker, director of the FTC's Midwest Region and a leading expert on fraud. "People want to believe so bad."
The power of the romance scam — its ability to operate undetected and to beguile its victim into a kind of partnership — lies here, in the gulf between what the victim believes and what is actually happening. Outside the scam, it's almost impossible to explain such irrational behavior. How on earth could you hand over your life savings to a stranger you met on the Internet, someone you've never even seen in real life?
When Amy talks about how she fell in love, she always mentions his voice. It was mesmerizing — musical, clipped, flecked with endearing Britishisms. His writing was like this, too — not just the British-style spellings of words such as "colour" and "favourite," but the way he dropped "sweetie" and "my dear" into every other sentence. They exchanged numbers and began talking every day. His teenage years in Manchester explained the accent, but there was another sound in there, too, a wisp of something she couldn't place.
They spoke of the things you talk about at the beginning of a relationship — hopes, dreams, plans for the future. She opened up about her marriage, her grief, her work, her faith and her conviction that things happened for a reason. Amy had never met a man who was so passionately curious about her.
And she was just as fascinated by Duane. Or was it Dwayne? In his early emails, the spelling seemed to switch. She found his LinkedIn profile — it was short, with just a few connections. There were other curiosities. Amy felt they were in some kind of time warp. She would be fixing breakfast and he'd be talking about going out for the evening. He traveled a lot for his work, he said. Almost casually, he explained he was calling not from Virginia but from Malaysia, where he was finishing up a computer job.
Looking back, would things have been different if he'd said he was in Nigeria? Maybe. Amy knew all about those people who posed as Nigerian bankers and gulled victims with awkwardly phrased "business opportunities" over spam email. But this was different; Amy loved to travel and knew lots of people from overseas. The fact that Dwayne was living in Malaysia added an exotic note to his "eau de enigma." He talked about visiting Bali and sent her a link to an old John Denver song, "Shanghai Breezes," about two lovers separated by distance.
Funny how you sound as if you're right next door, when you're really half a world away.
AP Images for AARP Media
Enitan* lives in a small village outside Lagos, Nigeria. Born in neighboring Benin, he and his family moved to Nigeria during his childhood and went looking for opportunities in the emerging economic powerhouse of Africa's most populous nation. Instead, he found "the game" — Nigeria's shadow economy of 419 scams, named for the article in the Nigerian criminal code that deals with fraud.
Enitan is not the scammer Amy encountered in 2013; his fraud career ended in 2008, he says. Since he left scamming, he's spoken out against the practice. But based on his account, the fraud playbook he followed has not changed. He estimates that over four years he made more than $800,000 from about 20 victims, both men and women. He agreed to talk on the condition that he would not be identified by name. "Once you are out of the game, you are seen as a traitor," he says. "You become the enemies of those who are in it."
Typically, 419 scams are advance-fee frauds — variations of the age-old "Spanish prisoner" gambit, which promises riches to unsuspecting strangers in exchange for a modest payment. Sent first as printed letters, then as faxes and emails purporting to be from Nigerian officials, these offers are now part of Internet lore. Indeed, they're so well known that 419ers have adopted a more effective variation — mining dating sites for targets of romance scams.
Impostor scams can flourish wherever the Internet exists (Eastern Europe and Russia are also hot spots), but most dating fraud originates in Nigeria and Ghana, or in countries such as Malaysia and the U.K., which have large communities of West African expatriates. In fast-developing parts of the world with high unemployment, a large percentage of English-speaking young men, and a postcolonial legacy of political instability and corruption, playing the 419 game can be a tempting way out.
"Ignorance and desperation," Enitan says, drove him to fraud in 2004, when he was 18. That's when he drifted in with the legions of other young Nigerian men known as Yahoo Boys, named for their preference for free Yahoo.com email accounts. He learned the con from an older mentor, and he, in turn, passed on his skills to younger friends.
Enitan describes a three-stage model. Using stolen credit card numbers, the scammer would flood dating sites with fake profiles. Victims can be found anywhere — scammers also forage for connections on social media — but dating services provide the most fertile territory. Profile photos are pirated from social media or other dating sites. To snare women, he'd pose as older men, financially secure and often in the military or in engineering professions. For male victims, he just needed a photo of an alluring younger woman: "Guys are easier to convince — they're a bit desperate for beautiful girls." The common thread between them: loneliness. All his victims, Enitan says, described themselves as divorced or widowed. "The lonely heart is a vulnerable heart."
Ideally, the prospective victim makes the first move. "It's always better if they respond to your ad first because that means they already like something about you," Enitan says. "If you respond first, you have a lot of convincing to do."
Grooming the victim begins in the second stage. After learning everything he can about his target, he would launch a campaign of love notes and gifts. "This is where you need lots of patience," he says. "This is where the real game is."
Wow ... It feels like the universe is manifesting my perfect partner right before my very eyes. Prayers answered and yes it does seem like we have known each other a long time.…
Amy wrote that seven days after receiving the first message from Dwayne. They were on the phone for hours every day at this point. His was the first voice she heard in the morning, and the last before bed. Typically, Amy would talk and text with him until about 11 a.m., when she had to go to work. Around 8 p.m., they'd talk again for an hour or two, then spend the rest of the evening texting or instant messaging into the night.
In their emails, they filled pages with minutiae about their lives — her upcoming holiday trip to Sarasota, Florida, with a girlfriend; his visit to a textile museum in Kuala Lumpur. Mixed amid this were Dwayne's increasingly ardent declarations of affection:
Last night, in my dreams, I saw you on the pier. The wind was blowing through your hair, and your eyes held the fading sunlight.
Florid passages like that did not spring from Dwayne's imagination. He cribbed them from the Internet. Still, on Amy those words cast a powerful spell. That's how she thinks of it now — it was like a switch flicked in her head. She'd been in love before. But this was different, a kind of manic euphoria. "You are filling my days and nights with wonder," she confessed to Dwayne on Christmas Day.
Are you real? Will you appear someday.… Hold me in your arms, kiss my lips and caress me gently. Or are you just a beautiful, exotic dream … if you are … I don't want to wake up!
At the core of every romance scam is the relationship itself, a fiction so improbable that most of us initially marvel in disbelief: How do you fall in love — really fall in love — with someone you never meet?
Until the term "catfishing" crept into the vernacular, love affairs with digital impostors were little-known phenomena. The term comes from the 2010 documentary film Catfish, about a man with a girlfriend who, we learn, does not exist; it later inspired an MTV series. Pretending to be someone else online is a social media parlor game among some young people. But Amy had never seen the show or heard the term; she had no idea the practice was so common.
In her 2008 book, Truth, Lies and Trust on the Internet, Monica Whitty, a psychologist at the University of Leicester in the U.K., explored the mechanics of online relationships. Computer-mediated relationships, she says, can be "hyperpersonal — more strong and intimate than physical relationships." Because the parties are spared the distractions of face-to-face interaction, they can control how they present themselves, creating idealized avatars that command more trust and closeness than their true selves. "What happens is, you can see the written text and read it over and over again, and that makes it stronger," she says.
Photo by Gregg Segal
Unsurprisingly, age is a factor: Not only are older victims more likely to lose larger sums of money, there's evidence that our ability to detect deception declines with age. But when she surveyed scam victims in the U.K., Whitty found that certain personality types were particularly vulnerable. These people tended to describe themselves as romantics and risk takers, believers in fate and destiny. Many, like Amy, were survivors of abusive relationships. Women were actually slightly less likely to be scammed than men — but were far more likely to report and talk about it.
The other term that Amy would later learn is "love bombing." The phrase was coined to describe the indoctrination practices of religious cults, but scam victims also apply it to the smothering displays of affection they receive from online suitors. In both situations, the victim's defenses are broken down by exhaustion, social isolation and an overwhelming amount of attention. Amy would later describe the feeling as akin to being brainwashed.
This is the painstaking grooming process that Enitan calls "taking the brain." The goal is to get the victim to transfer allegiance to the scammer. "You want them thinking, 'My dreams are your dreams, my goals are your goals, and my financial interests are your financial interests,' " he says. "You can't ask for money until you have achieved this."
When she came home from her trip to Florida over the holidays, Amy found a bouquet of flowers waiting for her, and a note:
My life will never be the same since I met you. Happy New Year. Love, Dwayne
Not long after this, slightly less than a month since his first contact, Dwayne brought up his money troubles. He promised he'd fly home in January, as soon as he finished this job in Kuala Lumpur — a $2.5 million project. But some components he purchased from Hong Kong were stuck in customs. He didn't need money, he assured her — he had a hefty trust fund in the U.K., and was in fact planning to retire after finishing this job. But he couldn't use his funds to cover the customs fees. And he couldn't come back to Virginia until he finished the job. He was stuck. So, if there was any way Amy could help him out, he'd pay her back when he returned to the States.
Photo illustration by Chris O'Riley
Amy started by wiring $8,000 to someone in Alabama — a fiancée of a friend, Dwayne said — who'd then get the funds to him. Then he asked for $10,000 to bribe immigration officials because of an expired visa. Finally, Dwayne set a day for his flight home and emailed his itinerary. He'd be there January 25. Amy even bought tickets for their first real date — a Latin dance concert in a nearby city that night. And she told her brothers and her friends that they would finally get to meet this mystery boyfriend.
But first, another problem came up: He had to pay his workers. While he'd been paid $2.5 million for the project — he even emailed a scanned image of the check, issued by a Chinese bank — he couldn't open a bank account in Malaysia to access the funds.
She had the money. And Dwayne knew it. Not exactly how much, perhaps. But he knew she owned her home and two other properties. He knew that her mother and husband had recently died. And he knew she was in love.
January 25 came and went. A new problem delayed him; Amy took one of her friends to the concert. Dwayne apologized profusely and sent her more flowers, again with the promise to pay her back. Soon, he needed more money. She wired another $15,000. This part of the con follows a familiar pattern. The scammer promises a payoff — a face-to-face meeting — that forever recedes as crises and logistical barriers intervene.
As February wore on, Amy was still telling friends that Dwayne was coming in a matter of days or weeks. But she never mentioned the money she was lending him. It's not that she was intentionally misleading anyone. But she knew it would be hard for them to understand — especially now that she was in for more than $100,000.
She'd get it back as soon as he came, of course. When doubt started to creep into her mind, she would look at his pictures or read his messages. Still, almost in spite of herself, she wondered. Little things seemed odd. Sometimes, out of the blue, he'd fire off a series of rapid-fire instant messages—"oh baby i love you" and so forth. It felt almost like she was talking to someone else. Another time, she asked what he had for dinner and was surprised to hear his answer—stir-fried chicken.
But I thought you hated chicken.
He laughed. "Oh, Amy. You know me better than that."
"Send me a selfie, right now," she commanded him one night. To her relief, she got a photo moments later. There he was, sitting on a bench in the sun on the other side of the world.
Psychologists call this "confirmation bias" — if you love someone, you look for reasons they are telling the truth, not reasons they are lying. We tend to find what we are looking for. And Amy was looking, desperately, for reasons to trust Dwayne, because the money was really adding up.
"How do I know you're not a Nigerian scammer?" she once asked, playfully.
He laughed. "Oh, Amy. You know me better than that."
Besides, he'd be there on February 28. She planned to make dinner for him that first night. She bought all his favorite foods — fresh salmon, sourdough bread, a nice Merlot. The trip would take more than a day: He had to fly to Beijing, then Chicago, and finally connect to Virginia. He'd call her as soon as he got to Chicago. His last message was a brief text that he said he sent from the airport in Kuala Lumpur.
I'll be home soon my love.
The truth behind the lies
Then, when the day finally came, Amy's phone remained silent, despite her efforts to get in touch. Something must have gone wrong. Why hadn't he called or texted her back? He always called. Always.
She tried to tamp down the pinpricks of panic. When she collapsed into bed that night, she thought about how this had been the first day in almost three months that they hadn't spoken.
There wasn't a single thunderclap of realization. But that week, it all came apart.
Dwayne finally contacted Amy three days later. He sent a single text. Something about being held up by immigration at the airport in Kuala Lumpur and needing money to bribe the officials. This was the third time that Dwayne had failed to show, the third last-minute catastrophe. Still, she wired him the money.
Amy's sister-in-law was the first to figure it out. "You need to see this," she told Amy, sending her a link to a recent episode of the Dr. Phil show, in which the TV therapist confronted two women who claimed to be engaged to men they'd met online. Amy watched in growing horror.
A few days later, Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 disappeared. This was the same Beijing-bound route Dwayne had planned to be on earlier. As the story of the vanished airliner filled the airwaves, Amy couldn't help but worry that Dwayne had been aboard — maybe he'd managed to take a later flight? Finally, he called her. But the call went to her home landline, not the mobile phone she'd been using. They spoke for only a few moments before it broke up. She was relieved but also disturbed — and curious. Something was different.
The daily siege of calls and emails and messages had ended. Suddenly, she wasn't tied up for hours every day. Alone with her thoughts for the first time in months, everything about their relationship seemed to blur.
How much do I really know this guy?
One by one, she started feeding the photos Dwayne had sent her into Google's image search, trying to trace where else they might have come from. Eventually, up popped the LinkedIn page of a man with a name she'd never heard. Whoever Dwayne was, this wasn't him.
She Googled "romance scam" and started reading. Even as she discovered the truth, part of her held out hope that her case was somehow different — that she was the lucky one. But the spell had broken. It was like waking up from a deep sleep — those strange moments when the dream dissolves and the real world comes rushing back.
The money …
Oh, God. How much? Looking at the numbers, the figure seemed unreal. She had sent Dwayne more than $300,000.
If you peruse the archives of Romancescams.org, a resource center and support group for dating fraud, you can see Amy's story repeated again and again, with only minor variations. In a decade, the site has collected about 60,000 reports, from men and women, young and old. "People think victims are all lonely old women who can't get a date, but I've seen doctors, lawyers, police officers," says Barbara Sluppick, who founded the site in 2005. "One of the most heartbreaking questions we get is, 'What can I do to get my money back?' But it's gone. There's no way."
Some of the most aggressive efforts to track down scammers have come from Australia. Brian Hay, head of the fraud unit of the Queensland Police Service in Brisbane, has orchestrated sting operations that have led to the arrest of about 30 scammers based in Malaysia or Nigeria. But so dim are the chances of successfully finding offenders that, he admits, he rarely tells victims about these prosecutions: "I don't want to get their hopes up."
Hay has also built a close relationship with Nigeria's Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), which was established in 2002, in part to rein in the country's rampant 419 culture. He's inspected the computer logs of scam operations, where teams of Yahoo Boys cooperate to systematically exploit victims, using playbooks that script out conversations months in advance. Some scammers specialize in phone work; others, in writing or computer hacking. Still others work the late phases of the scam, impersonating bank officials or law enforcement in an effort to con victims who are trying to get their money back. Think romance fraud on an industrial scale. "The strongest drug in the world is love," Hay says. "These bastards know that. And they're brilliant at it."
Where does all the money go? Investigators fret about West Africa's terrorism links — northern Nigeria is home to the notorious insurgent group Boko Haram — and its role in international drug trafficking. While the EFCC has made some high-profile arrests, only a relative handful of fraudsters are brought to justice.
And, as Amy discovered, victims in the U.S. have few options. When she talked to an agent at her regional FBI office, she says, they took her report — and told her that a woman in the next town had lost $800,000.
The psychological toll is harder to quantify. The trauma is twofold: Besides the financial loss, scam victims endure the destruction of a serious relationship. "It's like finding out someone you loved has died, and you'll never see them again," Sluppick says. "Everything you knew has disappeared. People have to go through a grieving process." To compound the damage, victims blame themselves — and their family and friends often do, too. "People think, 'Why did I let this happen to me?' But you're a victim of a crime — it's like you were raped," she says.
In Australia, Hay has found that face-to-face victim support groups are helpful. But Whitty notes that, for many, denial is the easier path: A surprising number of victims end up getting scammed again. "Awareness of the scam isn't going to change their perspective," she says. "Part of them still wants desperately for it to be real."
Other victims fall into the risky practice of scam baiting, a kind of digital vigilantism: They attempt to turn the tables and lead scammers on with promises of future riches. Months after she discovered the scam, Amy continued talking with Dwayne, promising him another $50,000 if he would send her various documents. Her hope was that she'd be able to lure him into giving up something incriminating. She found the neighborhood in Kuala Lumpur that he said he lived in, and she prowled its streets using the Street View feature on Google Maps, looking for some landmark he might have mentioned. Sometimes, he'd still call her in the middle of the night, and she'd hear that familiar voice for a few moments.
Finally, Amy accepted that Dwayne — whoever and wherever he was — would never show his true face, never give her the confession she yearned to hear. She abandoned her hunt. She made up a story about how she was being investigated for money laundering — this was a real possibility, given the amount of money she'd wired overseas — and even typed it up on a fake government letterhead. On New Year's Eve 2014, one year after he had sent that first bouquet of flowers, she emailed it to Dwayne, with a note telling him not to contact her. They were done.
A few minutes later, he texted her back. He promised not to call her anymore.
"I know you're innocent," he wrote. "And so am I."