She wrote him first, on a Thursday evening in December 2013. “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 Amy* puzzled over their relationship, she’d remember this. She had contacted him, not the other way around. That had been a fateful move; it had made everything easier for him. But she didn’t know that yet.
It had been over two years since Amy had experienced the death of her husband of 20 years, four since she had lost her mother—two sharp blows in her 50s. Her marriage had been troubled—her husband was abusive—but cancer took him before she could process what was happening. Now she was alone in a house in Virginia. Amy had grown up in the community, and her brothers and their families lived nearby. When it came to meeting men, however, her choices were limited.
In the fall of 2013, she signed up for a six-month subscription a popular online dating site. She considered herself pretty tech savvy. She had a website for her business, was on Facebook, and carried a smartphone. In her profile, she was honest about her age (57) and finances (“self- sufficient”), and her pitch was straightforward: “looking for a life partner … successful, spiritually minded, intelligent, good sense of humor, enjoys dancing and traveling. No games!”
She exchanged messages and had a few phone calls with men; she even met some for coffee or lunch. But either they weren’t her type or they weren’t who they’d said they were in their profiles. She resolved to contact only men who were close matches according to the site’s algorithm.
Then she saw this guy with a mysterious profile name: darkandsugarclue. The photo showed a trim, silver-haired man with a salt-and-pepper beard. He was 61, liked bluegrass music, and lived an hour away. And he was a “100% match,” so she wrote to him.
More than a week later, she got this message: “Thank you so much for the e-mail and I am really sorry for the delay in reply, I don’t come on here often … 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 e-mail as I hardly come on here often.”
He gave her a Yahoo e-mail address and a name, Duane. When she went back to the dating site to look at his profile, it had disappeared.
She wrote: “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 e-mail me with information about yourself and pictures so I can get to know you better.”
Duane sent a long message that sketched a peripatetic life. He was a “computer systems analyst” from California who had grown up in Manchester, England, and had lived in Virginia for five months. Much of his note consisted of flirty jokes (“If I could be bottled I would be called ‘eau de enigma’”) and an imaginary description of their first meeting: “It’s 11 a.m. 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 …”
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Duane was nothing like the men Amy had met so far. “You certainly have a great sense of humor and a way with words,” she wrote. She mentioned the deception she’d encountered on dates: “It is amazing what people will do without conscience. I think it is always best to be whom we are and not mislead others.”
Within two weeks, they’d exchanged eight more e-mails. Duane suggested they fill out questionnaires listing their favorite foods, hobbies, quirks, and financial status. He also sent a link to a song, 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 ballad, which ends with the singer begging his lover to marry him. Then she listened to it again.
The World of Seduction.com
It’s an ancient con. An impostor poses as a suitor, woos the victim, then loots his or her finances. In pre-digital times, scammers found prey in the personal ads of magazines. Today, technology has streamlined communication, given scammers new tools, and opened up a vast pool of victims. Fifteen percent of adults in the United States said they’ve used a dating website or app. In 2015, the FBI received 12,509 complaints related to online-dating fraud, with losses of $203.3 million. That figure may be low because many victims never report the crime or tell their loved ones. Their silence stems from shame, fear of ridicule, and denial. “Once people are invested in these [romances], it’s extremely difficult to convince them they are not dealing with a real person,” says Steven Baker, director of the Federal Trade Commission’s Midwest Region and a fraud expert. “People want to believe so badly.”
In 2015, the FBI received 12,509 complaints related to online-dating fraud, with losses of $203.3 million.
When Amy talks about how she fell in love, she always mentions Duane’s voice. It was musical, clipped, flecked with endearing Britishisms. Soon after they connected online, they began talking for hours every day in addition to e-mailing and texting. His years in England explained the accent, but there was also a wisp of something else in his voice. Still, this did nothing to deter her interest. In their conversations, Amy opened up to Duane about her marriage, her job, and her conviction that things happened for a reason. She had never met a man who was so curious about her.
She was just as fascinated by Duane. Or was it Dwayne? The spelling switched from his earlier e-mails. There were other curiosities. She’d be fixing breakfast, and he’d be talking about going out for the evening. He traveled for work, he explained. He was calling from Malaysia, where he was finishing a computer job.
Since Amy loved to travel, the fact that Dwayne was living overseas added to his “eau de enigma.” He sent her a link to an old John Denver song, “Shanghai Breezes,” about two lovers separated by distance.
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She wrote: “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 sent that note a week after her first message from Dwayne. In e-mails and calls, they shared the day-to-day minutiae about their lives—her upcoming trip to Sarasota, Florida, with a friend; his visit to a textiles museum in Kuala Lumpur. Mixed in were his 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.”
Those florid words cast a powerful spell on Amy. “You are filling my days and nights with wonder,” she confessed to Dwayne on Christmas. “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!”
When she returned from her trip to Florida, Amy found a bouquet of flowers, with a note: “My life will never be the same since I met you. Happy New Year. Love, Dwayne.”
“The Lonely Heart Is a Vulnerable Heart”
Enitan* lives in a small village in Nigeria. (Most dating fraud originates in Nigeria and Ghana, as well as in Malaysia and England, two countries with large West African communities.) In 2004, when he was 18, he fell in with a group of young Nigerian men known as Yahoo Boys, named for their use of free Yahoo.com e-mail accounts. “Ignorance and desperation,” he says, drove him to crime.
Enitan is not Dwayne; his fraud career ended five years before Amy contacted her suitor. (Enitan agreed to talk on the condition that he would not be identified by his real name.) Based on his account, the playbook he followed has not changed. He estimates that over four years, he took more than $800,000 from about 20 victims, both men and women. He’d change his voice to sound feminine when speaking on the phone to his male victims, he said; only once did he get caught.
He describes a three-stage strategy. Using stolen credit card numbers, he would flood dating sites with fake profiles. Photos were pirated from social media or other dating sites. To snare women, he’d pose as older, financially secure men. For male victims, he just needed a picture of an alluring woman. All his victims, he says, were divorced or widowed: “The lonely heart is a vulnerable heart.”
Ideally, Enitan let the victims make the first move. “It’s always better if they respond to your ad first because that means they already like something about you,” he says. “If you respond first, you have a lot of convincing to do.” After learning everything about his target, he’d 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.”
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In the 2008 book Truth, Lies and Trust on the Internet, Monica Whitty, a psychologist at the University of Leicester in the United Kingdom, wrote about how online romances can be “hyperpersonal—more strong and intimate than physical relationships.” Because the parties are spared the distractions of face-to-face interaction, they can create idealized avatars that command more trust and closeness than their true selves might.
Age is a factor: Not only are older victims more likely to lose larger sums of money, but there’s evidence that the ability to detect deception declines with age. When Whitty surveyed U.K. scam victims, she found that certain personality types were particularly vulnerable—people who were romantics and risk takers, believers in fate and destiny. Many, like Amy, were survivors of abusive relationships. Women were slightly less likely to be scammed than men but were far more likely to report and talk about it.
Not only are older victims more likely to lose larger sums of money, but there’s evidence that the ability to detect deception declines with age.
One term that Amy later learned was love bombing, a phrase referring to the smothering displays of affection that victims receive from suitors. A person’s defenses are broken down by exhaustion, social isolation, and an overwhelming amount of attention. Amy described the feeling as akin to being brainwashed. Enitan calls it “taking the brain,” where the goal is to get the victims 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.”
“You Know Me Better Than That”
Slightly less than a month since his first contact with Amy, Dwayne brought up his money troubles. He’d planned to fly back to Virginia in January after he finished a big project, but some components were stuck in customs. Dwayne had a U.K. trust fund and would retire after this job, he said. But he couldn’t use the fund to cover the customs fees. And he couldn’t come back to the States until he completed the job. If Amy could help him, he’d pay her back when he returned.
Amy had money, and Dwayne knew it. She owned her home and two other properties, and she had inheritances from her mother and husband. He also knew she was in love with him. Amy wired $8,000 to the fiancé of a friend of Dwayne’s in Alabama, who’d get the funds to Dwayne.
Then he asked her for $10,000 to bribe officials because of an expired visa. Finally, he set a day for his flight home—January 25—and e-mailed her his itinerary. Amy bought tickets for their first date, a Latin dance concert that night, and she told her brothers and friends they’d finally meet her mysterious boyfriend.
Then a problem came up: Dwayne had to pay his workers. While he’d received $2.5 million for the project—he even e-mailed her an image of the check—he couldn’t open a bank account in Malaysia to access it. She sent more money. January 25 came and went without Dwayne. He apologized profusely and sent more flowers.
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“People think that victims are all lonely old women who can’t get a date, but I’ve seen doctors, lawyers, police officers [get conned].”
Soon he needed more help. She wired another $15,000. This is a familiar pattern in love cons: The scammer promises a payoff—a face-to-face meeting—that forever recedes as crises and barriers intervene. As February wore on, Amy told friends that Dwayne was coming soon. But she never mentioned the loans. She knew the situation would be hard to understand, especially now that she had given more than $100,000.
Dwayne would pay her back, of course. When doubt crept in, Amy would look at his pictures or read his messages. Still, little things were odd. At times, he’d send a series of rapid messages that felt almost as if she were getting them from someone else. Another time, she asked what he’d had for dinner. He said stir-fried chicken.
But I thought you hated chicken, she replied.
He laughed. “Oh, Amy. You know me better than that.”
One night she commanded Dwayne, “Send me a selfie, right now.” She got a photo moments later. There he was, sitting on a bench in the sun.
“How do I know you’re not a Nigerian scammer?” she asked one day, playfully.
He laughed. “Oh, Amy. You know me better than that.”
Psychologists call this confirmation bias—if you love someone, you look for reasons he or she is telling the truth, and Amy was looking, desperately, for reasons to trust Dwayne. Besides, he’d be there on February 28. He sent a text from the Kuala Lumpur airport: “I’ll be home soon my love.”
Then he went silent, and Amy tried to tamp down the panic. He texted her three days later—something about being held up by immigration in Malaysia and needing money to bribe the officials. This was the third time he’d failed to show. Still, she wired him the funds, putting the total amount she’d sent him over $300,000.
Amy’s sister-in-law figured it out. “You need to see this,” she told Amy, sending her a link to an episode of Dr. Phil that featured two women who had been unknowingly engaged to imaginary men they’d met online. Amy watched in horror.
A few days later, Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 disappeared. This was the same route that Dwayne had planned to be on. Amy couldn’t help worrying that he’d been on board. Finally, he phoned. They spoke for only a few moments before the call broke up. She was relieved but also disturbed. Something was different.
That week, the daily siege of calls, e-mails, and texts from Dwayne ended, and Amy wondered: How much did she know him? She fed the photos he’d sent into Google’s image search. Eventually, up popped the LinkedIn page of a man with an unfamiliar name. She Googled the phrase romance scam and started reading. Yet even as she learned the truth, part of her hoped that her case was somehow different, that she was the lucky one.
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“The Strongest Drug in the World Is Love”
At romancescams.org, a resource center and support group for dating fraud, you’ll find scores of similar stories. In a decade, the site has collected about 60,000 reports, from men and women, young and old. “People think that victims are all lonely old women who can’t get a date, but I’ve seen doctors, lawyers, police officers [get conned],” says Barbara Sluppick, who founded the site in 2005.
Some of the most aggressive anti-scam efforts have come from Australia. Brian Hay, the head of a fraud unit in Brisbane, has orchestrated stings that have led to the arrest of criminals in Malaysia and Nigeria. But so dim are the chances of finding offenders that he rarely tells victims about these cases. “The strongest drug in the world is love,” Hay says. “These bastards know that. And they’re brilliant at it.” He notes that face-to-face support groups can be helpful for victims.
When Amy went to her regional FBI office, she says, an agent took her report—and told her that a woman in the next town had lost $800,000. The psychological trauma suffered by victims is twofold. First, they must cope with the end of a serious relationship. “It’s like finding out someone you loved has died, and you’ll never see them again,” Sluppick says. To compound the damage, victims blame themselves—and their loved ones often do too. “People think, Why did I let this happen to me?” she says. “But you’re a victim of a crime.”
Some victims try the risky practice of scam baiting, attempting to turn the tables on fraudsters. Months after she discovered the con, Amy continued talking to Dwayne, promising him $50,000 if he sent various documents. She wanted to lure him into giving up something incriminating.
Eventually, Amy had to accept that Dwayne would never show his true face or give her the confession she yearned to hear. On New Year’s Eve 2014, a year after he’d sent that first bouquet of flowers, she e-mailed him telling him not to contact her again.
A few minutes later, he texted. He promised not to call. “I know you’re innocent,” he wrote. “And so am I.”
Doug Shadel is AARP state director and a nationally recognized expert on the financial exploitation of older persons. David Dudley is a features editor at AARP the Magazine.
*Names have been changed.