My first suitor is as handsome as a “Bachelor” star, with a bright, boyish smile, an outdoorsy tan and biceps that would get him noticed in any gym. He’s maybe a few years shy of 40, a doctor judging by the scrubs he wears in photo after photo, and a single dad.
His perpetual beard stubble suggests he doesn’t take his charms too seriously, as do the photos of him making funny faces for the camera.
He tells me I’m beautiful and charming, and he’s clearly dying to know more about me:
“Are you married any kids how old are you if you don’t mind me asking???”
For almost a year, I have saved up Facebook friend requests from mysterious strangers with vague bios and few likes on their posts. Their photos spotlight their high-grossing professions, muscular torsos, lavish lifestyles and adorable offspring. They pose with dogs or kids, but never with spouses or dates.
They’re single, of course, and who knows? Maybe looking for love?
Suspicious by both nature and profession, I bide my time and consider my options. And then, dear reader, with Valentine’s Day approaching, I suggest to my editor that I reach out to these men for a story. She gives me her full support, and I summon my courage and friend them, each and every one.
Romance scams are a growing menace in the U.S., with Americans reporting losing more than $200 million to smooth-talking lotharios in 2019, according to the Federal Trade Commission. The median loss per crime for victims in my age bracket of 50-59 is $2,000.
It’s hard to even know the true scope of the problem because shame often keeps victims silent, according to Aunshul Rege, an associate professor of criminal justice at Temple University, who has done research on romance scams and describes them as “heinous.”
Some victims are blackmailed by scammers who have intimate photos of them or know their family secrets, Rege said.
“More often than not, there’s a lot of shame that is associated with this, and that is something that I think makes love scams particularly awful,” said Rege.
“It really gets to the core of what it means to be human.”
I’m appalled, of course, and I want to do my part to educate the public about an underreported threat. But I’m also ticked off that scammers might see me as an easy mark. And I admit it: I’m curious. Who are these guys? And how good are their cons?
I open the floodgates on a Sunday afternoon, and by Monday morning the sweet talk is pouring in. The one who looks like a “Bachelor” star takes an early lead. His profile says he was born in Italy and now lives in California, and after a little chitchat about the time and the weather he tells me he’s a U.S. Army doctor on a peacekeeping mission in Syria.
Then he gets right down to business, asking for my age and marital status.
I tell him the truth: I’m married, with two kids and a cat, and I assume the game is up. But he just forges on, asking me if I am happily married.
The answer is yes, but I manage to dodge the question, which strikes me as rushed and intrusive, even given the increasingly seamy scenario. I was imagining a cat-and-mouse game with a skilled con artist, and instead I’m ducking questions from a guy with the emotional intelligence of a floor lamp.
I say I have to go, and now it’s his turn to be miffed: “I guess my friendship is not welcome thanks sweetie.”
I have other suitors: a man who lives in Alaska and a 40-something American construction executive who is working on a project, also in Syria.
The Alaskan is very insistent about moving our conversation to another app, and that’s supposed to be a red flag, so I stop messaging. The construction executive greets me by firing off a series of questions that set off alarm bells. He’s probably just reading from a script, but he gets to “Do you live alone?” way too fast.
Meanwhile, the doctor who looks like a “Bachelor” star is back with more questions — do these guys ever do anything but ask questions?
I try to engage him in talk about his humanitarian mission in Syria, but he steers the conversation in the direction to what I’m cooking for dinner and when I get off work. I’m wondering if this conversation can get any more boring when, less than 48 hours after we’ve first messaged, he casually asks me for a little favor:
Can I please pick up a Steam gift card for him on my way home from work?
As a reporter, I’m thrilled: a request for cash! A concrete sign of a financial motive! But once again my ego takes a hit: Is this all I’m worth to him as a mark? A gift card for video games? And come to think of it, how old is this guy anyway? Threads start to come together: his eager questions about food, how he truly comes alive when I talk about the turkey burgers I’m cooking for dinner. And now video games.
Am I being scammed by a 16-year-old boy?
I say no to the gift card several times, but maybe too kindly. My suitor persists, and feeling used, insulted and triumphant in roughly equal parts, I stop responding. That’s when he starts making audio calls on the Facebook Messenger app. The first time, the ring tone startles me. I didn’t know Facebook Messenger could do that.
The “Do you live alone?” guy starts calling me on Facebook Messenger, too, and feeling harassed, I turn off my phone and go upstairs, where the ringing starts again, in classic horror movie style. My heart races, but then I realize the Facebook tab is still open on my laptop. I fumble to close it. The call is not coming from inside the house.
When I check my phone later that night, the “Bachelor” doctor has audio-called me five times.
I do a reverse Google image search on the “Bachelor” doctor’s photos on Facebook, and discover that he has been using the photos (but not the name) of a real doctor with an actual reality TV show. The real doctor, Bradley Schaeffer, is a New Jersey foot and ankle surgeon who co-stars in TLC’s “My Feet Are Killing Me,” and it looks as if my suitor has swiped Schaeffer’s photos straight off Instagram.
Contacted via email, Schaeffer messages back that he isn’t the person contacting me; Schaeffer isn’t even on Facebook. He also shares his Instagram message about scammers who filch his photos:
“Hello. I send this exact same message to many people. This is horrible and something called Catfishing. These scammers take my pics. They come up with wild stories to get $ from u. My IG page is meant to inspire and educate people! I chose to make my account public to HELP ppl. I am very SORRY for the trouble this may have caused you BUT I was NOT the one speaking to u and would NEVER ask u for money. I work/live in 🇺🇸. I hope u have a great day and understand it was NOT me. I don’t know u!❤️”
It’s downhill from there. My suitors are generous with endearments of the “Good morning, beautiful” variety, but they’re reluctant to say anything about themselves beyond a few bland sentences that almost seem cut and pasted from a script.
I’m not sure if I’m being judged by a sexist algorithm, by a romance scam network (yes, that’s a thing) or if it’s just a coincidence, but as my journey continues and my 50-something age bracket becomes clear, my suitors become older — much older, actually.
I’m approached by two white-haired men with virtually the same name within a matter of hours — think Michael Roberts and Robert Michaels. Another man who looks old enough to be my father greets me for the first time with the line, “Hi ma. Nice to meet you.”
Being called mom (or a variation thereof) by someone I did not give birth to or adopt becomes a theme of my Facebook suitor experience. I’m guessing that some women might like that, but also that they’re in the minority. In any case, I am not one of them.
“You’re going to lead with that?” I want to say, as a young man breaks the ice with “Good morning mummy.” When I stop responding, he pleads with me, “Please mummy I (would) love to know more about you.”
By the weekend, I’m largely corresponding with the man old enough to be my dad, and it’s not going well.
When I ask him about his neighborhood in New York, he tells me he is on a boat in the “sea of New York.” As someone who lived in New York on and off for nine years, this makes no sense to me, but he only gets testy (and quotes Wikipedia without attribution) when I try to get him to elaborate.
I don’t know if it’s the sea of New York, or the mummy thing, or all the stories that don’t quite add up, but this project is starting to wear on me.
At a low point, I discover one of my suitors has friended some of my real Facebook friends, and I message them to say they might want to reconsider.
Facebook is worried too. I’ve gotten multiple reminders that it’s not a good idea to strike up Messenger chats with people you don’t know.
Measures you can take to avoid romance scams, according to the FBI’s website, include researching your suitor’s photo and profile online, going slowly and asking a lot of questions, and being cautious if the person seems too perfect or quickly tries to get you to leave a dating service or social media site to communicate directly.
The FBI also says to beware of people who promise to meet you in person but always come up with excuses. And you should never send money to someone you know only from online interactions or phone conversations.
I wrap up my one-week experiment and tally the results: one request for a gift card, two early and insistent requests to move the conversation to a different app, and at least two questions that could have been aimed at figuring out passwords or security questions: “Where were you born?” and “What are your children’s names?”
In addition to the “Bachelor” doctor, I have another suitor who’s handsome enough for reality TV, so I’d say he meets the FBI’s “too good to be true” criteria. It’s also worth noting many of my suitors are unusually discreet; hiding their friends lists or basic biographical information or relationship status from me. Employment information is vague or unverifiable, and my suitors tend to go by nicknames or names so common that they render a standard Google search useless.
None of this is conclusive. Even in the case of the gift card, I was free to say no, and I did. But still, after a week with my new friends, the world seems like a colder, crueler place.
What I do know for sure is I don’t like these guys, and I can’t wait to unfriend them.