Dating websites are full of single people looking for love — good news for romance scammers who excel at making them believe they’ve found their soul mate.
Okay. In the spirit of true confession I write this, and finally lay the experience to rest. This is my story about Clark. I might first mention that Clark was (and is) an illusion — including to himself. I suppose that was his charm and attraction. But maybe, just maybe, that will already send up a couple of red flags in your mind. Other than that, Clark was perfect.
I had spotted his profile on Match.com, sent to me by the Match selection gods. He seemed to be everything I could possibly hope for — reasonably good-looking, but still a real person’s face — intellectual, intelligent. He had prematurely graying hair and below a high forehead, the serious eyes of a dreamer. He wore glasses. His mouth held the slightest shadow of an embarrassed grin, like someone who is not comfortable in front of a camera, but yet determined to go through the motions to record that moment in time.
His mouth also held the promise of sensuality, especially combined with the expression in his eyes — the compassionately humorous gaze. There was, and still is, something incredibly compelling about that grainy photo. Looking at it, I have to admit that it still fills me with some longing of what could have been, and what was not.
I’d been on Match for a month. I’d had one lunch with a sad man who lived in the mountains and thought he was “not good enough.” I had exchanged a few emails with others ― even going completely out on a limb, taking the initiative and writing to a couple of promising guys myself. I have always been the epitome of the self-confident active go-getter in my professional and artistic life — fearless. But as a woman, where I had to “sell” myself, my qualities on the emotional level, on the “me” level, I was in more insecure territory.
So I looked at Clark’s profile, dreamed a little dream and then moved on. To my surprise, a couple of days later, I got an email from him! Amazing! He had also seen my profile (on Match, if you click on and look at someone’s profile, they are alerted that you have taken a look) and wanted to get in touch! He lived in Sacramento — a number of hours from me, but not so far that meeting halfway, or driving either way, would be unrealistic.
He wrote me a sweet note that I just took at face value — how he thought we had things in common, how he liked what I had to say, how he liked the way I looked. I wrote back, expressing my thoughts about how I had come across his profile, liked it and had wished that he would get in touch. Serendipity was pulling at my heartstrings. Pragmatic and down to earth as I am, I am still a sucker for romance, underneath it all.
I noticed that, unlike his articulate profile on Match, his English was, well, strange. It was definitely not the English of a native speaker. He also encouraged me to communicate with him on Yahoo IM, saying that way we could talk to each other better and quicker. Amused, I went through the hoops to get the instant message thing going on my computer.
As soon as it was installed, immediately a message came up, with floating balloons and a big SMACK! of an animated kiss. I was a bit taken aback — this was a little too corny for me. But I didn’t think too much about that. I mainly thought he was very sweet — and attentive.
I asked him about the language issue. He said he was an engineer, specializing in oil prospecting and that he was German. He told me he had moved to the U.S. from Germany with his younger adopted brother five years before. He told me that he was an orphan. He and his “brother” had been raised in Germany by a nun.
Clark said when he moved to the U.S. he had moved with his wife as well, and that she had died shortly after they moved to the States. Oddly, he didn’t seem to want to dwell on that much. But I thought he just didn’t want to think about that painful subject. Once he mentioned his wife and her death, he never talked about her again. Down deep in my brain, it did seem strange that he would not mention anything they had done together, the move to California or any of that.
We kept up the communication, mostly through the IM (instant messaging). I was wondering when we would progress to talking on the phone, but he seemed to prefer this method of “talking.” So, since it was new and interesting to me, I let that be.
Quicker than I would like, he started laying on the romantic stuff. He also started sending me sweet, but very corny hearts and flowers poems. And he started talking about planning travel — with me — to Germany to visit the old nun, his “mother” as he called her.
He encouraged me to renew my passport, which I did, thinking I might want to visit friends in Europe anyway. Things were escalating quicker than I wanted, but I figured this was just his passion, his enthusiasm. I kept reminding him that we had not even met yet and we needed to take that step to even confirm if there would be any mutual interest face to face. But, like the drip, drip, drip of the leaky faucet wearing off the polished surface of the durable porcelain sink, he was starting to wear down my defenses, starting to suck me into the dream.
I guess there had been a weak place in my logic, in my emotional armor when he came into my life. Somewhere where my senses ― and common sense ― had been anesthetized. And, with his relentless conviction, dreams and attentiveness, he was getting to me.
Shortly after we started our dialog I asked him for more pictures. In all this time, the only image I had of Clark was the one small, grainy photo. Then he said he was going to go for a few days to visit his brother, who lived in Florida. He told me that his brother had married a nice woman named Karen, whom he had met on Match! He said that this was the reason he wanted to try Match himself. He many times expressed his loneliness and desire to find a partner, a wife. Although the “wife” word rang a small alarm bell in me, mostly I was drawn to his focus on me, his interest and passion.
Since he was going to see the brother and sister in law, I asked him if he could have them snap some new photos of him, and also of them. While supposedly (yeah, the correct word) in Florida, he kept up the attentions, the corny poems and the instant messages. But these were brief, as he said his brother “needed the computer.” When I asked about his activities with his brother, he was vague. Communication was brief.
All the while, he had been telling me about a pending trip and contract he was supposed to be organizing with his agent, Nicholas, to go to Africa, to the Niger Delta. Clark had said he was a freelance contractor and en engineer, prospecting for oil. He said that he generally worked on contracts, which could last up to a month or two and then had reasonably long periods of down time.
When he returned from Florida, he told me that things were moving faster with his contract, that he might have to leave in a few days. He asked me if I had my passport yet, could I come with him? Although flattered, I was also a little shocked as again, this is a guy I had never even shared a moment with, face to face. International travel? To Africa? Spontaneous and combustible as I may be, I am also not totally without a brain — or without obligations.
Thankfully getting the passport was going to take a couple of weeks, so that temptation was out of my hands anyway.
He had a meeting in two days (this was a Monday) scheduled with African diplomats in Sacramento and the trip was imminent. He just needed to iron out the final details, he said. He said he might even be leaving that weekend. Trying not to be selfish about it, I did suggest that he route his flight so that he could stop over in Los Angeles and we could meet at the airport. With effusive gushings in his charming but broken English, he assured me he would try.
Imagine my surprise when on Wednesday, the day of his meeting, I finally got a call — my first phone call from him. The connection was horrible and his accent was strong. I could barely make out what he was saying. But I did get the gist of it — he had met with the diplomats, and he was leaving right then and there. He said they had made arrangements for him to come with them. He was flying off to Nigeria.
The African Storm
By this time we had been communicating, pretty much constantly, for about a month. I was used to hearing from him, usually early in the morning or early evening. But I was sure I wouldn’t hear from him while he was gone. A day or two passed and bam! I was sitting at my computer and the usual “hearts and flowers” IM message came up, with the big SMACK! pink lips. Clark. In Africa.
After a few vague replies to my questions about the trip and work, he began complaining about how he didn’t have a signed contract for the job. Flabbergasted that he would take off like this, go to Africa without a contract, I called him on it.
He said, “This is how they do things here.”
“Okay,” I said… “Well, what about your agent, Nicholas?”
“Nicholas is with me, here, “he said. “It will all work out.”
“Okay,” I said, “I guess you have gone through this plenty of times before. If you want to fly off to a place like this and trust that you are going to get them to honor an agreement, likely you know how they do things.” I was skeptical but figured this was a professional, used to dealing with these situations in third world countries and he was there with his agent. I figured he had it under control. Then I started noticing the cobwebs in the corners of the castles (why hadn’t I noticed them before?) — and sand began to shift under the foundation…
I still heard from Clark through IM, and a couple of virtually incomprehensible mobile calls. No mention of his work, activities, things he had seen, people he had met. Between declarations of how he wanted to be with me, he was just lamenting that he couldn’t get some sort of work permit, couldn’t get the contract signed, was stymied. He told me he had left with just some cash that he grabbed that day before they whisked him off. This was sounding weird and unprofessional to me. He told me he had tried to get money from his bank in the US and couldn’t. Red flag, red flag, red flag.
I asked him what his bank was and he said, “Bank of America.”
“That’s mine too!” I told him. “Let me check with the bank and see why they say they can’t send money to you.”
“No, no no,” he said. “You won’t get anywhere with them. It is this country. Bank of America won’t wire money to Nigeria.”
The next day the news was that he couldn’t get the necessary permit. I was incredulous. He flew ALL that way, without a permit, without a contract? The castle walls were definitely feeling shaky. Then he IM’d me later in the day. “I don’t have enough money to come back,” he writes.
“WHAT?” I screamed, in text and with plenty of exclamation points. “Don’t you have a return ticket?”
“No,” he said. “I was counting on signing the contract and getting the advance on the work.”
This lovely, beautiful guy was now sounding like a total lunatic. The barbarian hordes were banging on the castle gates… Ouch!
Next day I got this message: “Could you possibly send me some money so I can get my ticket back?”
I was gritting my teeth in fury and tightly, rapidly typed back to him, “But you told me the other day that Bank of America won’t send money to Nigeria!” I was not about to send money to someone I had never met in person.
“Well then, you don’t love me,” he screamed in his text, embellished with sad, pouting-faced non-smiley emoticons.
“How am I supposed to love someone I have never met? I don’t even know you!” I yelled back to Clark’s dramatically furious IM, flourishing my own angry-faced non-smilies. “And I am definitely not sending any money to someone I haven’t laid eyes on!”
“Fine,” he said. ” I’ll find my own way to do this. You don’t love me.”
“Grrrr…,” I said, thoroughly fed up.
The next day I got a cold message from Clark: “I am selling my laptop and my watch and will be coming back to California. But I will not stop to see you. You don’t love me. You are not worthy of a love. You don’t know how to be in a relationship.” Open mouthed I sat in front of my computer, staring at the words. Then I started laughing. And laughing. And laughing.
It took me almost six weeks and a very small piece of my heart (and a whole bunch of feeling very foolish, but thanking my guardian angel too), but I had dodged the big fat cannonball, the buckets of boiling oil. Ha! A scammer!
As a journalist and avid observer of human nature, I quickly snapped back from this experience, but with the hunger to know if this sort of thing occurred in the online dating world, and with what frequency. I discovered a newsgroup on Yahoo called Romancescams.
To my shock and amazement, this group has currently almost 15,000 members, many of whom have lost thousands of dollars and have suffered broken hearts, even more painful to endure, because it also comes with the realization that they were played for the fool.
There are Russian women scams, Nigerian scams, other countries and both sexes. Mostly the scammers — though they profess to come from the US, Europe, Russia or Eastern Europe — are actually all young men and come from Nigeria. Even the beautiful, young Russian girls are Nigerian men.
As a member of this group for the time necessary for me to find my information and get my bearings (read: sanity) again, I found that the online dating sites are inundated with romance scammers. Some, like Clark, are more sophisticated and savvy than others. The same photos, many of which are from a Hawaiian modeling agency site, and some just simply stolen from various personal home pages and other places, appear over and over with different screen names, but similar stories.
There is usually a wife/husband that has left/died. There is usually a son/daughter left behind, being raised by the kindly(and lonely) widowed or jilted parent. There is usually some sort of voyage involved, to Africa or another country for whatever reason. Then there are the “tragedies” — the mother needing an operation and no funds, the lack of the ticket back home, the auto accident on the way to the airport, the heart/kidney or other organ transplant needed for the son/daughter. Romancescams spells it all out — and provides a member submitted photo and informational database of some 30,000 known scammers. I did not find Clark there, but submitted his photo and info for posterity.
I am still on Match, but have become (joyously!) a Scammer-Buster. When I get a suspicious “wink” or email and look at a suspicious portrait that just doesn’t add up (says the guy is “Native American,” the language is strange, repeats itself, plus usually their politics are “Ultra Conservative” while my profile states clearly I am a liberal, is looking for anyone age 19 – 89…) then I bust them to Match. Match is pretty quick and good about getting on the case of these scammers and taking down their profiles. I think they also know that this falls within the grey area of their liability. Bad for business for sure and all dating and matchmaking sites have had this problem with these resolute scammers. Learning about the scammers and reading the stories, researching on the Internet and having personal contact with some of the victims has been eye-opening for sure.
Feeling the pain
One young woman lost her mother this way. The mother, mid 40’s, who had had a terrible auto accident which left her as a quadriplegic a few years ago, fell for a scammer — and actually went to Nigeria to meet the guy and married him. The daughter calling me for information was desperate, as she had not had contact with the mother after the marriage the week before. The mother emptied her bank account to go to meet the guy (who was very likely already married with a family). The U.S. consulate in Nigeria was unwilling to investigate without any claims of crime or foul play. Who knows what has befallen this woman, who needs help to take care of the basics in her life, such as taking a bath, getting into bed. I would not be surprised if she was robbed of anything valuable and then dumped in the countryside, never to see America or her daughter again.
Another woman I talked to was a cop. Through threats and promises, she finally got her scammer to confess. Instead of the 39-year-old man with a fifteen-year-old son that she thought she was dealing with, the scammer was a 19-year-old boy — who was playing both parts of the father and son. He pleaded with her, crying and begging, not to call Interpol on him. He told her that he really wanted to stop this life, but that it was like a mafia — powerful and dangerous men threatened his family if he wouldn’t continue. He also told her that it was impossible to make an honest living in Nigeria.
Whether these things are true or not, is unknown. However, she had the impression that he was (finally) telling the truth. He was terrified, with her as an officer of the law, that he or his family would be harmed. Certainly that country is unregulated and these sorts of “industries” can thrive.
I’m sure to some extent there are two sides to the story, but I tend to not be terribly sympathetic to anyone who chooses crime and duping innocent, vulnerable (maybe stupid sometimes?) victims over trying to live a straight, honest life. But then, I am not living in Nigeria, so who am I to judge? Certainly a society that seems to favor and reward the criminals can be one that is very difficult to confront.
And I have my own experience to remind me and give me a healthy dose of humility. I did get sucked in, albeit for a brief time. I did swallow the story. I did have feelings for the elusive and illusionary Clark. That remains, along with the lesson. And the story. And that photo of Clark, with his kind eyes and enigmatic smile.
Copyright © Marva Marrow/2014 Singular Communications, LLC.