A retired medical professional admitted he paid almost €5,000 to a woman he met on Facebook, even though he suspected he may be the victim of a romance scam.
The academic got involved with the ‘Syrian-Turkish woman’ after she shared a post on social media nine months ago, claiming she was in a refugee camp in Syria with her son and needed help to leave.
After first offering to help, Joe* soon became romantically involved. And even though he has never spoken to her in a voice or video call as she claimed it was unsafe to do so, he was willing to take the risk for love.
He first wired €675 to a sponsor company that claimed to be helping her out and has so far paid around €4,700 to get her as far as Istanbul. Or so he is told.
Emotion takes over and trumps intelligence– Sex and relationship therapist Matthew Bartolo
“If you’re desperate, you fall for it,” said Joe, who is in his mid-60s and who had been separated for almost five years when he met the woman, who claimed she was in her 40s.
“I am not a very social person. I spend a lot of time at home studying. So, Facebook offers me an opportunity to meet people and connect. I really wish to find someone and get married again.”
Joe, who is using a pseudonym, contacted Times of Malta after reading the experience of a woman in her 60s who gave away her life savings of more than €75,000 after falling for what she thought was her perfect man, only to eventually find out a scammer was behind the computer.
While many readers showed sympathy, some criticised her for not realising what was going on.
Joe wanted to share his story to try to change the impression among many that only “stupid” and gullible people fall for fraudsters that break hearts while emptying bank accounts.
He said that since a young age, he was deeply moved by compassion to fellow human beings, animals and nature: “so I never ‘fell for her’ as one comes to believe”.
Joe had his suspicions about the woman who claimed to be a refugee right from the beginning.
Several times, he visited the UNHCR office in Malta and also spoke to their lawyer.
“They had no doubt it was all a scam and they warned me not to send any more money. But somehow, I persisted.
“I am a type of person with almost zero social activities. I was married for 16 years but now am divorced as things didn’t work out. This ‘thing’ I am now involved in gives me some hope for a new relationship which may last forever. So, I am prepared to take the risk despite the loss of the money.”
However, he remains willing to hope his “perfect woman” he has been in touch with will one day arrive in Malta.
“I’m almost at the end. She says she will soon come. I might as well continue,” he says.
‘Our little secret’
Sex and relationship therapist Matthew Bartolo says the scam works because it dabbles with one of the basic needs of a person – to feel they belong.
“Humans are social animals, so the majority of us want to belong and this includes intimate relationships. This is where lonely people are emotionally vulnerable. And emotion takes over and trumps intelligence,” he says.
Bartolo says he has faced clients targeted through Facebook by scammers.
“Through a person’s posts, scammers know exactly what this person is looking for and play around with emotions. Scammers also tend to isolate the person – by spending time chatting online and turning it into ‘our little secret’,” he says.
While there are usually warning signs, such as requests for money, inconsistent stories, or reluctance to meet in person, the victim wants to believe the scam and might not see things clearly.
Bartolo notes that asking for money is a red flag in any relationship – even if real and face-to-face.
But when victims give money to scammers, they are investing in a relationship they need and crave. So, when they realise it is all fake, apart from being robbed, they are left picking up the emotional and financial pieces.
Surviving shame and betrayal
“It’s traumatic. They would have trusted the person with secrets and future plans and then realise they are fooled. At the same time, they are missing a relationship that could have been – feeling betrayed and scammed apart from the shame and embarrassment of being fooled,” says Bartolo.
There is stigma, and shame means many are reluctant to report it but Bartolo encourages victims to do so.
“Ideally, they speak up, especially to law enforcement, as this normalises it. Talking to people close to you breaks isolation and offers support. They need to come to terms with what happened and understand it is not their fault and it could happen to anyone.”
In fact, romance scams are on the increase. Over the past five years, police received 37 reports of romance scams, with victims being defrauded of just under €1 million between them. So far this year, the police received 13 romance scam reports.
“To avoid falling victim to a romance scam, watch for warning signs like rapid declarations of love, requests for money, limited photos and reluctance to meet in person. Never share personal or financial information. Be cautious, conduct research and trust your instincts. If something feels off, report the situation and seek advice from trusted sources,” the police said.
Joseph Calleja, a psychodynamic psychotherapist, believes that romance fraud can happen to anyone.
“But they often target individuals who are emotionally vulnerable, trusting, or seeking companionship. Falling for a romance scam is not necessarily related to a person’s intelligence. It’s more about the psychological and emotional vulnerabilities that scammers exploit,” he said.
There are then emotional and psychological repercussions to discovering that something significant in your life was fake or not as it seemed.
“Common emotional and psychological responses include betrayal, anger and resentment, confusion and disorientation, grief and loss, self-doubt, shame and embarrassment, depression and anxiety and difficulty trusting,” he says.
“Seeking support from friends, family, or a mental health professional can be beneficial in navigating these complex emotions and working through the repercussions of such a realisation. Time, self-reflection and self-compassion can also help in the healing process.”