When my younger sister announced that she had met the love of her life I was consumed with joy for her. Although it was an online relationship, from the way she described their feelings for each other, I could hardly wait to meet the man. She described how they called each other “My King” and “My Queen.” She said her King wanted to create a safe, happy home where they could settle after traveling the world together. My sister loved that he had two adopted dogs and that he enjoyed fine dining and sunsets.
Her love story sounded blissful and exciting. But as the weeks passed, I started to notice cracks in the facade. When I began to ask probing questions, my sister shut down. The more I pushed the more she retreated. Although I knew little to nothing about online romance scams, my spidey senses were blaring that something was wrong.
Sign #1: Scammers ask their targets to leave the dating site, and exchange emails and phone numbers. Sure enough, shortly after connecting, my sister and her scammer exchanged emails and phone numbers. She moved full steam ahead, thinking why would she want to continue looking for love online when she had already found it?
Sign #2: The scammer claims to have fallen in love within weeks of meeting their target. Within two weeks of having “met” each other, my sister and her new man were professing deep and abiding love. The few times I was able to pull from her details of their conversations, the language he used to express his feelings for her seemed overwrought and melodramatic. Words and phrases such as “destiny,” “soulmate,” “you are the center of my everything,” “you are the one I’ve wished for.” Beware of sugary sweet messages. Most likely he was just following scripts used and shared by scam operations.
Sign #3: The scammer is temporarily out of the US due to business or other plausible reasons. Although my sister’s guy claimed to have lived on the central coast of California, currently he was residing in Cuba, remodeling a villa that he exalted would one day pay for their retirement! But because he was in a foreign land where cell phone service was spotty, this became a standard excuse why their calls were static-filled or dropped. Cuba and the villa also set the stage for why he would come asking for money and Apple products in the days to come.
Sign #4: There is always a crisis where the scammer will require their target to send him/her money or expensive electronics. The “crisis” for which my sister’s new love hastily explained needed her financial assistance was this: the Cuban ministers required bribe payments in order to approve building permits, etc. Therefore, could my sister quickly send him iPhones and iPads along with large sums of money to pay off these officials? “Don’t worry my Queen!” he would say smoothly, “this is for our future together, and I will pay you back as soon as I can!”
Sign #5: The scammer will never engage in a video call. Not once in the several months that my sister communicated with her man, sending him Apple products and a total of $150,000, did she ever speak face to face with him. They never Skyped or Facetime’d. She never looked into his eyes as they spoke to each other. Yet she felt she knew him, trusted him, and longed for the life he so beautifully described.
So I did what any worried sibling would do — I launched an investigation. In my case, I resorted to hiring a private investigator. He asked me to provide him with the target’s full name, birth date, and any residential addresses. With the help of mutual friends of my sister’s, we learned the guy’s birthdate… because to celebrate his birthday, my sister had purchased for him a $700 bottle of cologne!
As the affair progressed, my sister shared with me photos and videos her love had sent to her. They revealed a handsome man in his late 50’s. He enjoyed a full head of vibrant gray hair. His chin was square. His eyes were bright blue. In one photo he was wearing a shirt with a southern California gym logo. I thought, why not call the gym and see if this guy is a member? The answer shocked me to the core of my being. It broke open the floodgates revealing that my sister’s King was nothing more than a criminal.
The gorgeous guy featured in all of the photos and videos was a gay man who managed a fitness gym in Santa Monica. His Instagram profile had been stolen. Looking at the man’s profile, I could see all the familiar photos that my sister had cherished. There he was with his rescue dogs. Several shots of him touring the “villa.” We were told that a picture of him sitting at a fountain in Cuba we now learned was really a location in Miami.
With this proof, my sister could no longer ignore the warning signs that her man was a bad guy. Her heart was broken and she felt horrible shame and guilt. But because she is a woman of strength and intelligence, she sought advice and guidance from experts in the field of self-healing.
Together my sister and I wrote a book about those terrible few months in our lives. The process proved to be healing for my sister. Writing the book, reliving our two sides of the story, sharing our feelings and experiences during that awful time, nurtured our sisterhood.
My sister forgave herself. Rather than hide in shame, she has gone public with her account of being scammed. She hopes to help others who have been duped by someone online. Her message is “When you fail, life is not over. You can find your way out of the darkness of failure and look for the blessings and lessons of your experience.” My sister still believes in love and more importantly, believes in self-compassion. She says, “I failed (at love) but I survived and became a stronger, courageous, and more gracious woman.”