If it hasn't happened already, it's likely that somewhere down the line each of us will have been 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 confronted recently 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.
But after going back and forth with the woman over Facebook, it started to occur to me that maybe I was actually the mark of a meta-scam wherein the scammer is falsely claiming to have been scammed herself by someone claiming to look like me in order to affect 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 romance type 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? Here was this poor heartbroken woman who had convinced herself she was in love with a man -- a man that looked exactly like me. Did that implicate me in her predicament? And isn't it 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 from across the world who we'd never met before 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 upon the loneliness of online singles, the majority of whom are over 40, 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 help overcome financial emergencies.
It's an offshoot of the classic Nigerian prince gambit, where many of these schemes are still believed to originate from. Even the least Internet savvy among us have grown wise to the unrealistic nature of that 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. As a study presented this year at the University of Leicester 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."
Romance scams, however, still pale in comparison numbers-wise to jobs scams in frequency (17,000 reports in 2011), if not financially (only $20 million in losses reported). It may or may not be surprising that the only thing more of us are in desperate need of than a boyfriend is a job.
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 invite into our social circles. Enabling this is the vast number of phony Facebook profiles in circulation. In June the company said that "of its 855 million active users, 8.7 percent, or 83 million, were duplicates, false or 'undesirable,' for instance, because they spread spam."
That's where my convoluted brush with this scam began, in a vertigo-inducing sort of online existential crisis. In my case, however, it wasn't my information that was being stolen, or my identity, in the traditional sense of the crime, but rather my image being used to hypothetically steal others' identities.
Here I was confronted with evidence of my vanity, quite literally, at work -- I'm 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 assume the image of someone too good-looking, so, wait, does that mean I'm only average-looking after all? You can see how this played havoc with my sense of self. Not anywhere near as much, however, as it did for her.
I mentioned the story as a curiosity to my friends, many of whom reacted with a laugh, but cautioned me against taking the woman at face value -- a face I never actually saw. Something about her story convinced me, nonetheless, that what she said was true, even as she subtly massaged my ego, dropping references to my writing, and insinuating me into a big 'isn't this whole thing funny' in-joke.
Was she, in fact, scamming me? I asked
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.
The scammer in her story then moved the communication over to email, which is the traditional next step in the process, where he would send her romantic poems and declaration of undying love. Next they moved over to chat windows, and finally to the telephone. "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, the picture I was building in my mind was of 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, as is often the script, 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. Textbook stuff. He didn't have the funds necessary as it turned out. She said she would send the money, but says now that she never had any intention of doing so. Her suspicions led her to an online scam forum, where she engendered a reverse look up of my image she had been looking at, which revealed her to my true identity. Or the man in the picture's true identity, whoever that guy is.
Is that even possible, I wondered. Yes, I'm a moderately-known media figure in some northeastern circles, but certainly not in Germany. Maybe I was being scammed here after all? I continued trading messages with her all the same, 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 likeable. 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 upon 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 is 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.
Nevermind that I knew this romance was fake, he knew it, and she seemed to know it at this point, 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 describe 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. but he always was been here, when i needed anybody to talk about my problems, he made me believe that i can trust him," she told me. "Where are the boarders between truth and fake, sometimes closer than you think, sometimes without boarders?"
Meanwhile, I was waiting for the other shoe to drop. The hook that would pull me further into this scam that I already was. A request for money that she had given him. 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.
She wanted to interact with someone that was real, in short. The man she had imagined didn't exist, so perhaps I was the next best thing. Those are motivation that cross all 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 said 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 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 really find out. 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.