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“Patrick” popped up as a match, and I clicked thumbs up.
His profile had only two grainy pictures, but he appeared to be handsome ― smiling right through to me while sitting on a motorcycle ― and in another close-up he was squinting slightly in the sun.
He was eager to communicate right away, which was different from the other matches I’d made on this dating site. I cringed a little at his grammatical errors in those first few messages, but they didn’t really matter because soon we were talking on the phone.
His raspy voice didn’t seem to match his suave appearance in photos, but it was magnetic all the same. He asked a lot of questions about me, which I found flattering. I told him I was recently divorced with two kids. I had a cool little red convertible that I liked to drive along the lake. I was a freelance writer with a lot of projects happening.
I might have been just a little cocky.
The divorce, two kids and little red convertible were all true ― but it was also true that I had just lost my 9-5 job and was barely making ends meet.
What I needed more than a boyfriend was a steady job.
I was powering through on a manufactured cloud of positive thinking instead of facing the pain of both a failed marriage and my sudden job loss. But I didn’t tell Patrick that. I was on a self-imposed campaign to be an unstoppable, successful and independent woman, and I was trying to manifest good things in my life by changing my mindset and reciting affirmations. I had hoped a new boyfriend would be one of those good things.
My conversations with Patrick were easy breezy. The more we talked, the more I found him to be charming and funny, with a tinge of exotic mystery. He was American but had a faint British accent, not the Milwaukee lilt consistent with where he said he was born and raised. He liked to play snooker. I had no clue what that really was ― I just knew it was some kind of billiards game. All the guys around where I live shoot pool. I didn’t hang out in bars or pool halls, but it sounded intriguing.
Patrick told me he had a petroleum marketing company with equipment sitting on a dock overseas waiting to clear customs. I wasn’t paying close attention to the zigzag of his story. I just enjoyed the attention.
I played hard to get. Even though it had been years since I dated, I wasn’t going to be the pursuer, so I usually waited for him to call or message me, which he did often. “Hello, beautiful,” he’d say, which was so nice to hear.
Still, the few times I did reach out to him, it took him a long time to respond. He’d always say he’d been busy. Yet, when he called me, he always said he couldn’t wait to talk to me again. And, while he lived only an hour away, when I began to ask about meeting in person, he said he couldn’t. He was getting ready for a big trip overseas to smooth things out with customs.
I thought if Patrick really wanted to see me as badly as he said did, we would at least meet for a quick cup of coffee. That didn’t seem like too much to ask, did it? “I can’t wait to meet you in person, and it will be for more than just a cup of coffee, but this whole mess came up so quickly,” he soothed. “I’m afraid you won’t wait for me ― you’re such a smart and intriguing woman.”
I had a hunch this wasn’t going anywhere, and my interest in this romance was starting to fade. Suddenly the conversation switched to him wanting my help with his business while he was away, mainly answering his emails and calls. I was interested again. I wasn’t sure if we would end up being lovers, but I could use the extra income and he agreed to my high hourly rate. He said he would forward all his calls and emails to me once he was at the airport.
The following Saturday afternoon, Patrick called me with a panicked, desperate tone to his voice. He’d dropped and shattered his laptop at London’s Heathrow airport and didn’t have time to get a new one before his connecting flight left.
So, what did I do? You guessed it. I agreed to help him. I still can’t pinpoint what hypnotic power compelled me to purchase that MacBook with my own money, take it to the FedEx store and ship it to Nigeria. I even sent a little card along with it that read, “Hang in there.”
Had he told me he was going to Nigeria? Maybe? I realized I hadn’t paid attention to the exact details of his trip.
Then I got another desperate call. Now he needed something to schmooze the customs agent who was holding up his equipment at the dock. An unlocked iPhone ought to do it, he said.
“Why not give him a nice bottle of Scotch? Some good cigars?” I asked.
His tone changed immediately. “That’s ridiculous!”
Suddenly I didn’t feel like he thought I was such a smart, intriguing woman.
And, yes, I sent the phone after he got the computer.
Now, I know what you’re thinking ― I’m thinking it, too! But, honestly, no matter how many times I replay those conversations in my mind or ask myself what it was that overcame me, I can’t formulate an answer. It’s like I ignored all the red flags waving in front of me like a hometown parade thrown by a scammer.
I don’t think of myself as naïve. I’ve watched enough episodes of “Dr. Phil” in which women confess to sending their life savings to a distant paramour while family members sigh and click their tongues, asking, “Don’t you see?”
But I didn’t. Not until he went silent when I asked a second time when he was going to reimburse me like he had promised: “I’ll write you a check for everything and more just as soon as I get back.”
“I don’t think of myself as naïve. I’ve watched enough episodes of 'Dr. Phil' in which women confess to sending their life savings to a distant paramour while family members sigh and click their tongues, asking, 'Don’t you see?' But I didn’t.”
Days passed. No calls. No answers. No response to my texts. Damn, I’ve been had, I realized.
The worst part was reporting it to the police. Humiliation is more manageable alone. You can ignore it. Rationalize it. But my bank account was hurting more than my pride, and I wanted to get that money back.
The officer who responded to my call was kind and sympathetic when he told me that there was little he could do. Despite attempts to track him down, “Patrick” was untraceable. I filed a report online to the FTC. I reported him to the dating site, but it didn’t offer much help, only a promise to block him and refund my $19.95.
Only after this fiasco did I learn about Google’s reverse photo search, which allows you to upload a photo and see where else on the web it’s been used, and other ways to detect a scammer. Does the person in question have a profile that seems too good to be true? Check. Do they have small or grainy profile photos? Check. Is the relationship intensifying quickly ― maybe too quickly? Check. Is the person always too busy or too far away to meet? Check. Are they asking for money or expensive items like electronics? Check.
Only after this fiasco did I learn that there are scores of people in internet cafes in other parts of the world juggling numerous sweethearts over the phone ― cunningly extracting rent and grocery money from lonely, kindhearted women. And only after all of this did I learn that, sadly, I’m not alone. The Federal Trade Commission reported $304 million was stolen by internet dating scammers in 2020. That’s a 50% increase since 2019, the FTC said earlier this year, “and has increased more than fourfold since 2016.”
I’m still left questioning what led me to be so easily snookered. I ignored the inkling that things weren’t adding up. I chalk it up to being out of practice when it came to dating and to a wet, heavy coat of fog hanging over my entire life during those days.
I never told anyone about what happened to me ― not even my family or close friends. It was just too embarrassing. But I’ve decided to write about it now in a very public way because if it can happen to me ― and so many other people out there ― it could maybe happen to you. No, really. Even if you think it couldn’t, it never hurts to hear one more story and take another minute to do whatever you can to safeguard yourself against getting scammed. And maybe it won’t be on an internet dating site. Maybe someone will try and scam you another way. The bottom line is if something seems fishy or too good to be true, trust your instincts and do a little digging.
Now there are websites that can help people determine if they’re dealing with a catfish or some other untrustworthy person ― services that would have saved me money, dignity and heartache if I had used them (or my own sleuthing) to do a little snooping. Actually, let’s not even call it “snooping,” let’s call it what it really is: self-protection.
Maybe Patrick wasn’t the only one who fooled me. My affirmations didn’t do diddly either. I now realize the common sense I so proudly thought I had and the financial proverbs my dad recited as I was growing up all went out the window when I came across a handsome, sweet-talking stranger whose face I never even saw in person.
And, according to Google photo search, that wasn’t even his real face.
Susan M. Sparks is an award-winning journalist, nonfiction ghostwriter and author of four self-published books. In her free time, she loves to grow giant sunflowers, be trained by her dog and travel. You can find her at GhostwritingSpark.com.