Anna* is a health professional living in the Christchurch area. Recently, she was targeted by a very convincing – and very odd – Tinder scam.
As told to Shanti Mathias.
I don’t go on Tinder much usually, but I was bored on a Wednesday afternoon and swiped right on this guy. He looked pretty ordinary – it said he was eight kilometres away. He said he was a Romanian who had been living in the Netherlands, but was in New Zealand looking for a new start – he told me he was a civil engineer bidding for a contract.
I was too busy to meet up, but he kept messaging and calling me. Soon, we moved off Tinder and onto WhatsApp. He was really sweet and romantic; he would send a text every morning saying “good morning sweetheart”, or links to romantic songs. It was nice, but I kept thinking “lay off, mate, we haven’t even met!”
He said he was looking for a school for his daughter and named two schools, which weren’t familiar to me. It didn’t make sense because I know all the schools around here. I looked them up, and the schools he had named were in South Auckland. When I asked him about this, he quickly sent back two schools that are nearby, in Rangiora. That was the first red flag.
Still, I didn’t have any reason to be suspicious. You don’t have the default assumption that everyone is a scammer. He video-called me from a car – I could see it moving – and the image and his voice were clear as day. It looked like the same person as the pictures he had sent, with a light Eastern European accent. He was a lovely guy, very charming; whoever it really was, I’m sure I was talking to the same person the whole time.
He had his big interview for the civil engineering contract on Thursday, eight days after we’d initially connected on Tinder. He told me all about it. He also said that as an independent civil engineer, he’d have to provide all his own equipment, and the equipment he needed was in Turkey. He was going to go to Turkey over the weekend, then come back here, and said we could meet afterwards. I thought that was strange – surely you could order equipment online and get someone else to send it – but I’m not in the civil engineering world.
When he got to Istanbul, he sent me some pictures of himself, then called again, another video call, walking around the hotel room. We spoke for about 20 minutes, and he asked me if I trusted him. I said “No, I haven’t even met you”. He seemed quite upset about that, and when the conversation ended, he started sending me even more messages and songs – it was so regular that I wonder now if he had an alarm. In retrospect, that’s another red flag.
The next day, he told me he had gone to the shop to check out the machines he needed to buy, but he was having trouble making the bank transaction, and he needed to get the plane back to New Zealand. Could I log in and do the transfer for him? “Are you sure?” I asked. “You’ve never met me,” but I agreed to do it all the same. He sent me the login details for a bank, an international bank I’d never heard of. His username and password were just his name – Patrick – which was another warning sign; usually banks are good at security, especially for international transfers. I could see he had nearly half a million US dollars in his account – I followed his instructions and transferred $98,000 to the bank account he specified.
But then I paused. I had just made an international transaction for someone I had never met. Something wasn’t adding up, so I asked my sister – she’s quite onto it with weird things like this. “It sounds super scammy,” my sister said. I had already tried reverse image searching the pictures he had sent me, but there was nothing. No Instagram or Facebook profiles matched his name. “Maybe he is a genuine, nice guy,” she said. When the scammer asked me to do another transaction for him, I called my sister again.
“I’ve found a YouTube account and Instagram that look like him,” she said, and we looked at them together. The person on Instagram was an American with thousands of followers, and an inactive YouTube account. I scrolled through the Instagram and found some exact copies of photos he’d sent me, posted weeks ago. I messaged my scammer. The story started to collapse: he tried to pretend to be the person I’d found online, but his voice and accent were different to the YouTube videos.
I still hadn’t clicked. I’d called this person multiple times, seen lots of pictures of him, talked about our lives. He’d sent me his flight itinerary with his name on it, shown me around his hotel room on video, asked me for recommendations for schools for his daughter. He clearly wasn’t the person in the Instagram account, but how could it not be real?
The penny dropped when my sister suggested that he was using a deepfake AI and somehow making it work as a video. I hadn’t heard of the technology until I looked it up, but I think it’s the only explanation that makes sense, and there are stories about the same thing happening elsewhere. He’d chosen that particular Instagram account because there were lots of close-up photos of the guy’s face, which you’d need to make an AI model. I confronted him again and got the chance to yell at him a bit, which was good – it’s given me some closure. “Who are you really?” I asked. “You need to explain this.” Then he disconnected the call and it said that he’d left the chat.
That was two weeks ago. It’s made me realise how hard it is to get support in cases like this. I rang the cops but they weren’t interested because technically no crime was committed. I emailed Netsafe, but they didn’t do anything. Tinder was helpful, though – they didn’t understand how he could fool the location tracker, but they wanted to know all the details, and they took his profile off the app.
It still feels like a mystery to me, and I’m not sure what the scammer really wanted. I was halfway to really falling for it, and I guess I’m pleased I worked it out. But it’s so twisty – I quite liked him, and I still feel sad that he wasn’t a real person, because he seemed like a nice guy. It was all so convincing and there were so many layers, I wouldn’t be surprised if the people behind it are professionals.
I’ve been reading other stories about people being scammed and I can see how easily it happens. Romance scams like this target women on their own and lovebomb them with messages until they don’t notice the red flags. They try to exploit you and gain your trust. It just seemed so real, until it didn’t.
I’m still on Tinder, and I know the signs of a scammy profile to look out for now. That’s why I’m telling my story: I want people to know that we all need to be alert, it could happen to anyone. Profiles with lots of images, but no-one in the background. Really symmetrical faces are more likely to be artificially generated. If in doubt, do a reverse image search – and always, always meet face to face, because that’s the one thing people running scam profiles can’t fake.
People shame you for falling for a scam – I told my brother about it, and he was giving me a hard time. I didn’t want to tell people and have them think I was an idiot. Because that’s how I feel. What an idiot! How did I fall for that? And the further you fall down that hole, the harder it is to tell someone. But I want anyone in the same situation to know that you have to shake off your shame and tell someone about it before you’re in too deep.