Here's how it happened. Before she knew it, her savings were gone. And the man of her dreams? He might not even exist. A short message sent on a Thursday evening in early December , under the subject line: 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. 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. 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. 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.
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. More than a week went by with no answer.
Then, this message appeared when she logged on to her account. Hey you, 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. And she was full of questions, about him and about online dating in general. I think it is always best to be whom we are and not mislead others.
Duane suggested they both fill out questionnaires listing not only their favorite foods and hobbies but also personality quirks and financial status. 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. Technology has streamlined communication, given scammers powerful new tools of deceit and opened up a vast pool of potential victims.
As of December , 1 in 10 American adults had used services such as Match. The mainstreaming of online dating is a revolution in progress, one that's blurring the boundaries between "real" and online relationships.
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 and 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. 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?