Perfect Stranger: How I Fell Victim To Online 'Romance Fraud'

Thousands of people fall victim to these devastating scams. I was one of them.
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This week new research released by the University of Leicester found that more than 200,000 people in the U.K. have been victims of online romance scams, according to EScienceNews.

The online study showed that 52 percent of those surveyed knew of "romance fraud," and one in every 50 online adults (2 percent) knew someone who had been duped by it.

I also know someone taken in by one of these scams: me.

In April of 2011, I was in the thrall of what I believed was the epic romance of my life. I had met him online, and over the course of our five years together, we developed what I thought was a deeply loving relationship. There was only one problem: He refused to let me see him.

It wasn't as if he hadn't described himself at least a thousand times, to me or to anyone else who might ask: 6'7" tall, long black hair, and what was once a nice face. He said he feared showing himself in a photo because he now had cancer, which had taken a toll on his looks. Letting anyone see his real face was simply out of the question.

I understood. I was a cancer survivor myself, so I knew how important it was to be loved and supported during this impossibly heart-breaking time.

When we first connected, he was using the name Dimitri. We took it to the phone, where he presented himself flawlessly. Between the soft, southern accent and the mysterious self-description, I felt I had finally met the man of my dreams. I vowed to see him through the cancer -- I even begged to come visit him, but he refused to let me.

It turns out there were many others who also wished to see the face of this supposedly dying man, because he made himself quite popular -- especially to those whose hearts were so big that they'd readily open their wallets for him. He had the charisma of the ultra-vulnerable: gentle, lovely, frail, and always the undeserving victim of circumstance. People seemed to find him irresistible.

When he wasn't playing the long-suffering cancer patient with me and who knows how many others, he posed as the autistic guy with the genius I.Q., the adult survivor of horrific child abuse or the bi-sexual flirt. He called himself, "Alex Lee," "Valyn," "Dimitri," or "Xander," depending on the year. But always he packaged himself as a dark and brooding Eric Draven clone, virtually guaranteed to appeal to a certain kind of lonely woman sitting at her computer, waiting for someone special to pay attention to her.

I was one of those women, and I believed it all. But I had something that made me especially valuable to Dimitri: I was relatively well known, popular, and respected. If I told people that I was in love with someone wonderful, I was taken at my word. And word swiftly became art. Out of my love for this poor dying man, I spared him the hassle of having to answer to anyone who asked for a photo by creating illustrations, depicting what I believed he looked like, for the entire world to see.

He was now validated. He was associated with me, had alluring images to represent himself with, and as he worked the cancer/abuse sympathy strings, dozens of compassionate people began sending their hard-earned cash to an alias in a small town somewhere in the Kentucky hills.

At that point I still had no idea that he wasn't who he claimed to be. Instead, after five years of romance, I was fixated on finally seeing the person I loved.

"Please show me your face," became the mantra I repeated every time we spoke, and that question eventually exposed the fraud. I pleaded and insisted until I wore him down. "Alex Lee" must have realized that the scheme had run its course, and agreed to finally get on the web cam and show me the truth:

The man I had loved and sacrificed so much for was a woman.

And not just any woman. She was an experienced scam artist with three grown daughters and two grandchildren. There will never be any words to adequately describe my shock and disgust. It never occurred to me that the man I came to adore would turn out to be someone so utterly devoid of conscience, so thoroughly steeped in duplicity.

She issued a public apology, denied ever having cancer and slunk off into a well-monitored oblivion due to the many people who reported her to the FBI, after the con was exposed.

So, how do stupid things like this happen to smart people like me? Desperate loneliness is a good place to start -- that, and a willingness to believe in a fantasy. After all, the heart wants what the heart wants, and I wanted love. Or maybe it's just impossible to think that anyone would lie about having cancer -- especially to a survivor.

But she did lie, and this terribly hurtful thing did happen. And it can happen to anyone -- in fact, it's happening to someone, right this minute.

Be aware of who you are talking with online. A voice on the phone will tell you nothing, a photo even less: Con artists can easily alter their voices and send photos of entirely different people. If you get a vibe that there's something wrong, insist on a live camera chat.

When I saw the real face of the person who conned me for five years, I saw an ugliness that way surpassed the physical. Simply put, it was criminal.

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