Love & Sex

The Sweetheart Scammer: I made my living lying about love.

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For almost two years, I lied for a living.

I lied to divorcés, virgins, shemales and post-op transsexuals; to young, attractive women and old, saggy men. I lied to single mothers, fathers and teenagers, to locals and citizens of almost every continent on Earth.

I'm a decent person. I'm not a criminal, telemarketer or Fox News talking head. I've never been inside a police station. I've never wanted to be a lawyer, agent or politico. I was just a cog in the internet-dating world, a sort of undercover cop for the hopeful and horny of the online-singles universe.

Every year, nearly forty-seven million Americans use online-dating sites. This wide-ranging search for love, sex and "friends with benefits" helps generate roughly $300 million annually for the industry, which continues to grow, despite the stalker-happy social-networking phenomenon. This large pool of interested, lonely and relatively affluent singles also begs fraudsters and scam artists from around the world to take notice. Some sites guard against these people at the sign-up stage with a rigorous registration process. Others, like the major personals site that I worked for, let everyone in and then hire the likes of me to clean up the mess.

It all started with a bout of underemployment, bills and low self-esteem. I'd been searching for "real" work, something with steady pay and an actual, physical office, when I spotted the ad. It was short and vague: "Do you love people, words and creative thinking?"

Answering yes to all three, I was soon interviewing for a position as a "quality-control manager," a title that seemed ominously close to "sandwich artist" on the B.S. meter. Of course, faced with an attractive, thirty-something brunette across the interview desk, I said, "Wow, that sounds really interesting."

"Good, because you're exactly the type of person we're looking for," she replied, "Provided you have no trouble with being dishonest."

"It doesn't bother me," I said, invalidating everything written on my CV, which dangled limply in her hands.

"Perfect," she muttered.

As I discovered, a quality-control manager roots out minors, aggressors and fraudsters by chatting with and baiting people. The particular strain of fraud companies worry about is known as the "Sweetheart Scam." It involves a lot of acting, abuse of trust and exploitation. In fact, it so callously targets the weak it's almost admirable in its inhumanity.

The sweetheart scammer will search out, select and court middle-aged American men, doing anything and everything to convince victims they are chatting with a model-like beauty. Once this belief is in place — and it may take hours, days or even months — a problem suddenly emerges to provide the budding relationship with its first real test. Usually this involves trouble with visas, money orders and medical bills, though travel money is also solicited.

"I work on model in Zaire, and my photog kill," one so-called American model told me on my first day, explaining how her supposed colleagues were kidnapped and beaten to death.

"Now I alone and need money for fly home," she said finally.

"That's fantastic! It must be so glamorous being a model," I responded.

This routine works so well that every day, horny, lonely men send money to what they think are beautiful girls. The sums usually fall between $100 and $150 per scam, but at least once a week someone will get ripped off for thousands of dollars. The worst I'd heard of was a southern man getting suckered out of fifteen thousand. I'm sure there are worse cases still. After all, hundreds of fraudulent profiles are found and removed every week — and that's only on the site I worked for. 

The exact breadth of the problem is hard to gauge, but the National Consumer League considered it a big enough threat to warrant an inclusion in their list of the country's top ten swindles last year. This prompted the states of New Jersey and Florida to introduce legislation that would force dating sites to conduct background checks on all its members — something very few companies want to do. Whether these laws would change anything isn't clear, and for the time being, these fraudsters can more or less roam free.

Most play to the sensitive, forlorn type of single, peppering their profiles with words like "soulmate," "family," and "love." Others stick to photos of porn stars, webcam models and phrases like, "Let's have sex," "69 all night," and the succinct but effective, "Fuck me."

What works best is hard to say, as this is just the bait. It's a way for the international fraudster to seem American, to hide the fact that they are from Nigeria, Russia or elsewhere. "It's not that all blacks, Asians and Russians are fraudulent, it's just that scammers are almost always darkies, chinks, or Ruskies," my manager explained, pointing to a Kenyan IP address and asking, as if to excuse herself, "See?"

The key, she said, to being a successful quality-control manager was writing a believable fake profile. On my first day, I was escorted to an isolated cubicle and left to sift through an archive of stock photography. I was told to find both female and male alter egos among a stack of professionally lit photos. These were people with whitened teeth, gelled and streaked hair, waxed backs, large chests and plucked eyebrows.

Unsurprisingly, very few women in the archive felt real or believable, until a picture of a dark-skinned brunette caught my eye. I figured this was a good sign, and staring into her full lips and round brown eyes, I created Maria, a confident but self-conscious twenty-something; the type who believes in constant human progress, but still daydreams of gas-lit streets and days when men didn't "holla" at women. "She'll do," my manager said, as if she saw creatures as perfect as my Maria every day of her life.

For my man, I found a slightly frayed Sean Connery look-alike, a thirty-five-year-old with casual clothes, a receding hairline and the smirk of an easy-going drunk. He was fit and muscular, but not rippling off the cover of a romance novel. I decided his name would be John, and he would be a recently widowed pilot. "Excellent," said my boss, suddenly interested again.

I'd begin my day by reading email, disregarding any from unattractive Americans and zeroing in on international emails that looked too good to be true. Usually, they were. The easiest to spot were the African and Russian scam artists, who often filled their profiles with obvious celebrity photos, geographical mistakes and atrocious English.

If scammers don't bother to be careful, it's because they've realized how stupid men can be. No matter how many times you warn us about the dangers of online dating, a pretty face and hard body will turn us into idiots. This is true offline too, of course, but it's even more pronounced online. A good-looking woman can do anything she likes on a dating site. She can listen to a married man's propositions and say, "I think you're disgusting. I hope you and your kids get cancer and die a painful death," and he will thank her for her time. I should know. "Maria" was thanked often.

The "beautiful women" of the Philippines were experts at capitalizing on this gender-wide blind spot. Nearly diabolical in their pursuit of scams, the Filipinas were aggressive, persistent and shameless.

"I sad," they usually said, adding, "Only $150 baby, den I no sad."

"$150? For you to be happy? Couldn't I at least get a hand job for that?" I often asked, mindful that little of what I said was understood.

"I luv u, u sen gif, we luv, an fear God," they'd continue, which seemed strange until I discovered that every Philippines resident with a vagina seems to fear God. Someone must have told them Americans find this attractive.

"You bet," I said, "we'll fear God like he was an immense gorilla with an anal prod."

"Ur good men," they replied.

"You're Goddamn right I am. I'm crazy oil rich, too. So, you want 150 dollars?"

"Wha? U serius baby?" They would ask, the drool visible through the fake photo.

"Of course."

"Dis no joke," they would plead.

"Of course it's not a joke. You go to school, have three jobs and a dying mother. If you still have time to chat, it's got to be serious."

"Oh yah baby Luv u, God grate," they would say, before asking for a Western Union number, contact address and name.

Every day I had variations of this conversation. No matter how many I removed, the scammers came back, stronger, smarter and with increased numbers. Imagine the thousands of junk emails in your spam folder; those came to me — only it wasn't a computer program hurling them my way. They were sent by real scam artists, targeting someone they thought was lonely and looking for love. And they never stopped. Sometimes, it was entertaining. Often though, it was just depressing. Was there anything as pointless as what I was doing?

Fighting off the sense of futility was tough, but so was keeping your cover. The only way to do it was to chat with as many people as possible, and convince them you were real. This is easy in theory, but hard in practice. There's a stigma that clings to online dating, a perception that members are somehow defective or lying. Churchill said, "Truth is so precious she should be constantly attended by a bodyguard of lies." This becomes remarkably clear on a dating site, where people sugarcoat and spin everything, until each picture and word is scrutinized for veracity. Conversations often start with the question, "Are you for real, or is this a joke?"

"I'm completely real," I always reassured.

"Well, I'm going to go ahead and call bullshit. I've been around pilots, and they get more pussy than the Humane Society," one candid Texan told me. "So you're either messed up, gay or permanently flaccid. Which is it?" she asked.

"The last one," I replied, adding a frowning emoticon and challenging her to some of the dirtiest chatting you'd ever imagine from a forty-year-old mother of four.

"Still soft," I'd remark, watching her grow more desperate.

"I give up, Limpy. Your pee-pee's problems are too much for me," she eventually declared, weeks later.

Messing with unpleasant people like her gave me a new enjoyment in dishonesty, which I could rationalize as part of the greater good. Playing off my pilot profile, setting and locale became as interchangeable as fonts. One day I was in Italy ("I think they just changed government"), the next France ("there's a protest going on"), Scotland ("Haggis is disgusting"), Russia ("I bribed someone today") or Belize ("I don't know anything about this place").

Regarding the supposed death of my wife, I usually said, "She fell off a building," though I was also fond of boating accidents, dental-surgery mishaps and exploding bakery ovens.

"That's too bad. So do you like going to the movies?" they usually asked in response, as if I've just told them my preference in cereal. This indifference is probably caused by aggressive men, the worst of whom attach pictures of their penises to their introductory emails. Mostly, it's a form of protective mistrust brought on by the online atmosphere. I couldn't blame them, but it did egg me on. It got to the point that I sometimes forgot what I was supposed to be doing. I started feeling like I was getting paid to surf a dating site. It took my friend Mitchell to remind me of the real stakes. Mitchell was online and honestly looking for love.

"All I wanted to do was exchange emails, find someone I thought was attractive, and meet for something quick and low-key, like coffee," he told me recently, looking back on his internet-dating adventures and rubbing his wedding ring.

But didn't the fraudsters and the general air of bullshit turn him off?

"I was never worried about being ripped off. I was only interested in meeting local people, and I couldn't see how someone local could scam me," he told me. "Besides, you usually get a good feel for the person's authenticity after the first few messages," he added, encapsulating the hope and naivety most singles have when signing up.

Mitchell met his wife of two years online. They're one of those success stories you see on TV commercials, and for a time, it drove me crazy. Their relationship made my pursuit of fraud real and necessary: it stopped being a game. When you're knee-deep in it, you think that every profile is full of lies. That the online-dating world is nothing more than trial offers, small print, lawyers, computer geeks, fetishists and the desperate. You forget that good people actually exist.

I ended up avoiding people like Mitchell and his wife, disgusted by their honesty and optimism. Trouble was, they were everywhere. In fact, every time I logged on and saw "my photos" — the perfect man and woman I'd pretended to be — I felt ridiculous and ashamed. Real people were falling for them, and I started wondering if this was the right work for me.

So, I'm back in the slop heap of want ads, job interviews and B.S. job titles. The sense of goodwill and self-respect I'd get from nabbing a scammer was fun and exciting for a minute. But it always vanished whenever I encountered a nice, normal single, and I'd find myself calmly writing: "Hi, my name is John. I'm a thirty-five-year-old pilot, and my wife just died in a circus accident."