My fiancé David wants us to set up home together in England. I’d rather we live at his ocean view mansion in California.
Whatever we decide, he wants me to know that I have captured his heart in a way he never thought possible, after he was so cruelly widowed five years ago.
David’s 15-year-old son, Larry, also adores me. He calls me ‘Mom’ and regularly emails me from boarding school.
As for me — well, what woman doesn’t dream of being swept off her feet by a dashingly handsome, hopelessly romantic surgeon who just so happens to be filthy rich?
The only trouble is that my fiancé, the man calling himself Dr David Smith, is none of those things. He’s an invention, what is known as a ‘catfisher,’ someone who orchestrates an elaborate online romance scam. They browse dating sites and social media accounts for victims, then woo them over several weeks before attempting to extort money.
Not love actually: Handsome ‘David’ (supposedly above), wooing Claudia online, was in fact using an image of innocent Dr Fernando Gomes
UK victims (men and women) were conned out of £63million last year according to Action Fraud the police unit investigating cyber crime.
As a single woman, who has written about my love life, I’ve been targeted several times by men on Facebook and Twitter and usually block them. But, with romance scams booming in lockdown, I play along when I’m targeted to see how these con artists operate and why so many women fall for their lies. I decide to catfish the catfisher.
It all starts when I receive a friend request on Facebook. The profile picture shows an insanely good-looking man but there are no other details.
I accept the request and instantly get a private message. The handsome stranger introduces himself as Dr David Smith — a brain surgeon no less. He’s originally from LA but currently fulfilling a peace-keeping mission on behalf of the United Nations in Afghanistan.
Romance fraudsters, who mostly appear to operate out of Nigeria or Ghana, often claim to be military. It provides the perfect ‘security’ cover story for never being able to speak or video call as you’d expect in a normal dating situation.
Cutting straight to the chase, David says: ‘I want to respect your status as a woman,’ and then asks if I’m single, have children or own a big house. So far, so unsubtle.
I answer his questions and pose a few of my own. One of the most common catfish tricks is to claim to be a widower, having lost their wife in the most tragic of circumstances. It tugs at the heartstrings of the victim and proves that the man wooing them is not afraid of commitment.
David tells me his wife was killed in a car crash five years ago. Bingo! She was the love of his life and he’s spent many days weeping at her grave. ‘Life has been very sad to me since the loss of my late wife,’ says the grief-stricken doc.
I do a ‘reverse image’ search on the extra pictures David has sent me of himself (where you upload photographs to an internet search engine). I discover that the dashing chap in the photos is indeed a brilliant brain surgeon — but not the man messaging me.
He’s Dr Fernando Gomes and based in Brazil where he is something of a celebrity with 820,000 followers on Instagram.
As a single woman, who has written about my love life, I’ve been targeted several times by men on Facebook and Twitter and usually block them, writes Claudia (pictured above)
After a couple of days of posts sent via Facebook, David suggests we start communicating via Google Hangouts (a private messaging app) and I agree. This is a textbook move by catfishers as they know that Facebook could remove their fake profiles at any time.
David’s certainly passionate and determined to sweep me off my feet. Within 48 hours of making contact, he declares he always wants to be by my side. The next day, he tells me that he is looking for his soulmate and — guess what — he’s found her. Me!
He wants to know everything about me, and is a born romantic, declaring: ‘My favourite colours are both white and red because the white stands for a pure heart and the red stands for love. When you add both of them together you have a pure hearted love.’
David paints a bleak picture of life in camp where he’s been for five long years and claims to be ambushed by ‘Isis’ on an almost daily basis.
‘Do you get to do much brain surgery there?’ I ask.
It transpires that — despite being a brain surgeon by trade — he can turn his hand to anything. He amputates limbs, patches up bullet wounds and, when he’s not tending to the sick and dying, he is fixing tanks, cleaning the camp and cooking for the men. What a hero!
He sends me what he claims are two pictures of where he’s stationed. Another reverse image search establishes that one is of a refugee camp in Guatemala. I don’t need to search for the second picture because there, in the forefront, is a sign that reads: ‘Camp Delta, Guantanamo.’
I ask him if he’s in Cuba but he insists he’s in Afghanistan and that the Guantanamo sign is a deliberate ploy to confuse the enemy. Cunning.
I soon come to suspect that I’m being messaged by several different people. Some have a good command of English while others are barely literate. David seems to be online at all hours of the day and night.
Oddly, I’m rather enjoying our communication and eagerly await David’s fictitious updates. Has he been ambushed for the third time this week? Has he rescued a soldier from a burning vehicle? Are his staff in LA taking good care of his mansions and sports cars? And, of course, he tells me I am beautiful at least 12 times a day.
I can understand why a lonely or vulnerable person might become addicted to the attention.
A week passes and he’s yet to ask me for money and I’m curious — and a little impatient — to know how he’s going to do it. He’s starting to drip feed me information that will no doubt be pertinent when the sting finally comes.
The poor soul has experienced many tragedies. His parents are dead. His mother died in childbirth, his father in a plane crash. He has no brothers and sisters and he cannot access his bank account from Afghanistan. He wants to retire but he isn’t allowed to until the UN agree to his request.
They sound like the worst employer — they didn’t even give him any time off when he was shot in the arm. Or was it the leg? David gets it mixed up.
Another time he tells me that ‘cheating and lies’ made his last relationship end.
When I ask about the relationship that ended in ‘cheating and lies’, he tells me it was his wife whom he kicked out after he discovered she was sleeping with his best friend. Hang on a minute. The wife whose death devastated him? Whose grave he wept at?
Whenever I question him about changing his narrative, he has a handy deflection tactic. ‘How is the weather with you my dear woman’ he’ll ask, like some maiden aunt.
I may be paying attention but David certainly isn’t. Sometimes, I deliberately get his name wrong, calling him: Daniel, Douglas or Donald. He never notices.
As our virtual relationship enters its second week, David is convinced I’m the woman of his dreams. ‘My love you deserve the entire world. I am unable to give you the world but I can give you something more valuable. I can give you my heart, my soul and all of me.’
I mostly respond to his passionate declarations with ‘OK then’ or ‘how sweet’. My lack of ardour doesn’t seem to deter him.
I do, however, ask my beau what it was that first drew me to him on Facebook. ‘Your sparkling blue eyes my love.’ My eyes are dark brown, but who cares about such trifling detail when two people are destined to be together?
David is full of plans about our future. We are going to live together in a huge house in London with ‘a view of the sea’ (only with a very powerful telescope, Darling). In a new twist, at the end of week two, he tells me about Larry, his 15-year-old son, and emails me a picture of my future stepson. Clearly, I’m meant to be charmed by the photo — which a bit of research reveals shows a child who looks eight years old posting a letter to Santa. Larry is remarkably small for his age.
He’s a boarder at the elite Santa Catalina School in Monterey, California. The school does exist — but it’s a girls’ school.
Over the next few days, Larry messages me — sometimes even at 4am his time, which triggers my maternal concern — to tell me about his day.
But then he drops the bombshell that he is being bullied because he doesn’t have a mobile phone or iPad. His father can’t send him money because he can’t access his bank account in Afghanistan. I know what’s coming but I fend it off at the pass by saying I am going to ring the school.
‘I won’t stand by while any son of mine is being bullied!’ I message. Suddenly, Larry decides the phone and iPad don’t matter after all and I shouldn’t bother his teacher.
Having failed to con me into buying the electronics, it’s time for David to step in with the big guns.
Claudia’s texts pictured on the right, in grey, and the conman’s replies on the left, in white
Three-and-a-half weeks in, he messages me to say that the UN has finally agreed to let him retire. But there’s a catch. The rotters are insisting he completes a final highly dangerous rescue mission.
Quite who a brain surgeon with no combat training is meant to be rescuing is unclear.
But, as a sweetener, the UN has given him $1million severance pay. In cash. David wants to send the money to me for safekeeping.
I’m instructed to email a courier company with the highly improbable email address of: firstname.lastname@example.org with my postal address.
I email from a fake account, giving a fake address and instantly get a reply from someone called Albert Johnson, claiming to be a diplomat. Albert wants me to send £5,700 ($8,707) in ‘taxes and fees,’ so that they can then courier me the million dollars.
I immediately message my fiancé and say I’m confused and can’t possibly send such a large sum when we have never so much as spoken. I tell him I simply must see the face and hear the voice of my beloved. David sends a three-second long video of him blowing me a kiss, lifted straight from the Instagram account of Dr Gomes (the man whose identity he has stolen.) Nice try.
I give my fiancé the silent treatment. ‘I see that you don’t love me any more, my heart is broken,’ he messages in desperation.
When I don’t respond he unleashes a forlorn Larry on me.
‘Mom, you promised to always make me happy, why are you making me sad?’ he pleads. Weirdly, I feel guilty for upsetting my fake stepson.
Finally, reluctantly, David agrees to a phone call. I can hear why he resisted for so long. Suddenly, a man with an accent that isn’t American, is on the end of the phone and I can hear children playing the background. It’s so hopeless I almost feel sorry for him.
Over the next few days, David bombards me with messages. He claims his life is in danger but until I pay up he can’t leave the camp. That doesn’t work so he sends endless saccharine declarations of love and pictures of huge red hearts. After three days of silence from me, he quits and our month-long, giddy romance is over.
As a cynical journalist, I saw the scam coming a mile off. But I can’t help but feel sorry for the thousands of women who fall prey to such scams and lose their life savings. Action Fraud receives an average of 700 complaints a month but, as many victims are too ashamed to come forward, the actual number will be far higher.
Over time, even I began to see how a vulnerable or lonely person, who’d never heard of catfishing, could get drawn in.
The scammers usually work in large, organised gangs, meaning you rarely go an hour without some form of contact.
The criminals then split the profits. I wonder what has happened to my ‘David’, who has probably been scolded by the boss for not landing his fish.
Tracking the gangs down and bringing them to justice is rare — but not unheard of. In December 2020, Operation Casanova resulted in 19 suspects (from Italy and Nigeria) being arrested in Turin. They’d conned thousands of women in 22 countries (including the UK) with one victim having handed over more than £1million.
And what of the man in the pictures — Dr Fernando Gomes whose image has been used thousands of times by scammers trying to con women all over the world?
I track him down to his office in Sao Paulo. The exasperated father of four tells me: ‘I first heard about people using my image and even my name, creating fake profiles an deceiving women, about three years ago. I know from the messages I get that many have been tricked into handing over money.
‘It’s very upsetting. Despite being well known in Brazil, I still need more people to know about this so we can end this deception.’
As for David and me — four days later he messages: ‘Honey, without trust we have nothing. Sweetheart, send the money.’ Finally, I do what every woman should when approached by strangers on the internet. Block and delete.