Editor’s Note: The scam victims quoted in this article are identified by first names or middle names because they requested anonymity out of fear for their safety. In each case, the Kyiv Post reviewed communications between the victim and the alleged scammer and verified the victims’ stories as much as possible.
At 54, Wayne isn’t someone you would call soft. The American navy veteran sports an impressive beard and served in the Persian Gulf War in the early 1990s.
But he cannot hold back his tears as he tells the Kyiv Post that the woman of his dreams broke his heart. In late January, the Florida resident flew all the way to Kyiv to meet her, but she never showed up.
“I got there, expected to see her at the airport. Nobody was there,” Wayne recalled. “Of course, I was very sad.”
“Sorry,” he said, sobbing. “This is hard for me.”
Wayne had never before been to Kyiv. Now, he was alone at Kyiv Boryspil International Airport, messaging Anna Melnichuk, a 30-year-old model he had fallen in love with. She wasn’t responding.
Frustrated, Wayne hailed a cab and asked the driver to take him to the nearest hotel. “I was in tears every day. I was really sad,” Wayne said. “That was really hard. I don’t speak the language. I was stuck.”
Wayne is just one of many foreigners who have sought love in Ukraine, only to wind up brokenhearted and thousands of dollars poorer. The country is an infamous destination for pricey marriage tours and a hotbed of international dating sites that charge lonely men exorbitant prices to chat with Ukrainian women.
Ukraine’s reputation for dating and marriage scams is so great that these stories have become central plotlines of the popular American reality show 90 Day Fiancé. It follows Americans attempting to bring foreign partners to the United States or to go meet them in their own countries.
But while marriage and dating scams may seem like a joke to many, they leave a trail of wreckage in their wake, ruining lives and destroying personal finances.
The number of complaints about such scams in Ukraine is so large that the U. S. Embassy in Kyiv put a warning on its website. So did the U.K. government.
$9,000 to talk
Four months before he traveled to Kyiv, Wayne met Melnichuk on a website called Love Swans. For the entirety of their “relationship,” they communicated through it. They never spoke over the phone or by video chat. He hoped she was just too busy.
Now, Wayne was alone in Kyiv. When Melnichuk finally texted him back hours later, she said she was in Odesa for a modeling gig.
He knew she would be away — she had told him right after he booked his flight — but he came to Kyiv anyways, hoping she would change her plans.
Now, Wayne believes Melnichuk never planned to meet him. He suspects that she scammed him.
By the time he had arrived in Kyiv, he had already spent $4,000 talking to her over Love Swans, which, like many international dating sites, charges a fee per message. Despite that, Melnichuk declined to give him her phone number and never responded to messages he sent via Instagram.
Instead, she encouraged him to use Love Swans to communicate. The site is designed for men looking to meet Slavic women and is based in Cyprus.
Wayne would not be the first person to suffer at the hands of such a site. Their customers regularly complain that they believe the women they were talking to were actually fake.
In 2013, the Kyiv Post published an opinion piece by a translator who had posed as other women simultaneously on various dating platforms for money.
Read more: Deceptive Love: My career in fooling men into love online
Melnichuk told the Kyiv Post over the phone that she does not want to answer our questions.
“It is my private life and I do not want to talk about this with some journalists,” she said.
But victims of such scams often find it hard to resist. Melnichuk called Wayne a “frantic angel,” “prince” and “treasure.” She told him he “evokes a wild cat” in her, adding “Meeeow!” at the end of her messages.
It cost $2 to open a message, Wayne said. As of today, he has spent $9,000 on them.
“It’s highway robbery and it’s not right,” he said. But he couldn’t stop: “I fell in love with her the first time I saw her.”
Now, Wayne believes she would talk with him all day long because it was actually about making money.
But after his experience at the airport, Wayne decided to try and track Melnichuk down. He scoured every modeling agency website he could identify in Ukraine. Finally, he found her. Melnichuk turned out to work with the Diamond Models Agency.
“I walked all the way to Diamond Models and I left the letter in their mailbox. And I told her I put a letter in there just to…I wanted to get a response,” he said. “She was all ‘I never got it, I never got the letter’.”
Diamond Models told the Kyiv Post they had never received any letter from anyone.
Wayne flew back to the United States alone. He characterizes his time in Kyiv as “a nightmare.” Still, he kept talking to Melnichuk. She told him she wanted to marry him and move to Florida, he said. The only obstacle for her was the COVID-19 pandemic.
“You have no idea how I am waiting for the end of quarantine and the opportunity to be with you. (To) fly on the wings of the night and find yourself in your fabulous embrace,” Melnichuk wrote in a message that Wayne showed the Kyiv Post.
“When you meet me at the airport, we’ll run around with balls and drink champagne from the throat lol, what will happen next? Something so passionate and crazy?” the letter continues in poor English.
Now, Melnichuk is waiting for restrictions on international travel imposed to stem the spread of COVID-19 to be lifted, Wayne said.
“And I am kind of sitting here waiting for flights to resume and to see (whether she comes),” he added hesitantly. “Part of me wishes she was true. She seems like a sweet, loving, innocent woman, but another part of me says there is somebody else behind this.”
If Wayne was unhappy that Melnichuk did not meet him at the airport, Gregory from Texas wishes that the Ukrainian woman he met had never shown up.
He says that his experience dating in Odesa ruined his life. “It took so much from me,” Gregory told the Kyiv Post.
It happened in 2013, but was so brutal that Gregory has never fully recovered from it. At the time, he was 35 and was actively seeking a pretty girlfriend. Ukraine was the right place to look, a family friend who had married a Ukrainian told him.
So Gregory went on Anastasia Date, an international matchmaking website. He set up dates with a few women in Ukraine. One of them was 21-year-old Kristina.
During his first trip to Ukraine, they met in Odesa shortly before he flew home. After that, they stayed in touch. A few months later, Gregory returned to Ukraine.
“She was the first person I wanted to see. I was very excited to spend time with her,” he said.
At dinner, Gregory told Kristina about his jewelry business and showed off some inexpensive stones he had brought with him.
“I wanted to impress the girl,” he said. “This was the worst decision.”
The next day, Kristina started asking for favors. She wanted him to pay her rent and buy her groceries. Knowing about the economic situation in the country, Gregory agreed.
She filled seven bags with food and other goods, which Gregory paid for. Then she asked if she could go to his place and wait for her sister to pick her up. He agreed.
But once they were back at his place, it wasn’t a sister who arrived. When Gregory opened the door, he was immediately hit with a hammer.
“The next thing I remember is I wake up on the floor and I am sitting against the wall. And I am destroyed,” he said. “They have destroyed me.”
He made it to the mirror, but what he saw there was shocking.
“I looked like a monster,” he said.
His head looked twice as big as normal and his eyes were nearly swollen shut from bruising. He later learned that he had several broken ribs, a punctured eardrum and a skull fracture.
“They actually broke my skull, they cracked my head,” Gregory told the Kyiv Post. “And all of the walls, everywhere in the entire apartment was blood.”
The apartment was also stripped of anything remotely valuable, he said. The police later estimated his losses at Hr 85,000 ($10,600).
After the robbery, Gregory felt weak and dizzy, and the only thing he was capable of doing was falling asleep.
“I thought: Well, maybe I’ll die here,” he said. “I was bleeding in the back of my head into the pillow. So, the bed was wet with blood for days.”
“I saw the sun go up and down maybe four times, and then on the third or fourth night I get people at my door,” he recalled.
His acquaintances found him and saved him. He spent almost 10 days in the hospital and then was forbidden to travel for another month.
When he finally got back home to the U.S., he had to undergo six sessions of plastic surgery to finally start resembling himself again.
“My (right) eye never really opened up the same as the left. Before it was equal,” he said.
He lost thousands of dollars and also something priceless, his health. Since the attack, he has struggled with memory loss.
Gregory approached Anastasia Date, where he met Kristina, to complain about what she did to him, but they were not of much help. Anastasia Date did not respond to the Kyiv Post’s request for comment.
Eventually, a Ukrainian court sentenced one of his attackers to nine years in prison. The court ruled that Kristina should spend five behind bars. However, because she was a mother, the judge canceled his ruling and let her go.
Gregory’s story represents an exception to the rule. Most victims of Ukrainian dating scams do not face physical violence and the police seldom go after the scammers.
That is particularly the case when the victim only lost $1,000 as he did, Almir believes. After he was scammed, he waited for the Kyiv police to arrive for three hours. But no one came.
In July, the 35-year-old data analyst came from Switzerland to Ukraine during the coronavirus pandemic to visit his girlfriend. Then, they had a fight and eventually broke up.
So Almir opened Tinder, a dating app, to meet a new woman.
“I was sad. I was pissed off. And then this girl came like an angel,” he said.
Maria was “amazing” and in her 30s, Almir said. They immediately arranged a meeting in a restaurant of her choice.
“I thought something was strange because she was looking really nice in pictures, like a top model,” he said.
But when they met, Maria turned out to be someone else. “She was a much nicer girl (than in the photos),” he said. When he confronted her, she denied being a different person. But, truthfully, Almir didn’t care much.
After the date, Almir planned to go to the swimming pool and invited Maria to join him. She agreed. But, first, she wanted to buy a swimsuit.
The store, called Secret Shop, was just across the street. Maria picked out a few swimsuits for a total of $1,000, but had trouble paying her bill.
“She was (saying), ‘Please, can you pay for this for me and I will give you the money?’ And I said okay. I was blind, I was stupid,” Almir said.
“She showed me her whole body (in the fitting room) in swimsuits, you know. Nothing helped anymore,” he continued.
When they left the shop, a taxi was already waiting.
According to Almir, Maria said it would take them to her place so she could pay him back.
“I did not see any taximeter. She said, ‘It is a private organization.’ Ugh, really private,” Almir said mockingly. The driver said he worked for the Business Class Limousine Service, a company that does not exist.
They drove for around three minutes and stopped. Then, Maria asked Almir to wait for her in the taxi and got out. She never came back.
“I tried to write to her — nothing. She did not reply,” he said. Soon the driver started demanding that Almir pay for the trip. He did not agree and left the car.
He walked back to the Secret Shop and asked for help. Failing to get it, he called the police.
While he was waiting for the officers to arrive, Maria finally texted back, saying she had a stomach ache and suggested they meet at the pool. Almir asked her to come to the shop instead. She declined.
After a few hours of waiting, he went to the police station. Maria wasn’t particularly concerned, judging by messages that Almir showed the Kyiv Post.
“In Ukraine, the police do not decide anything,” Maria said in one message, adding that her father is a police colonel.
Kyiv police did not respond to the Kyiv Post’s request for comment.
“I believe they are all in the same shit. They were together,” he said of Maria, the taxi driver and the shop assistants.
Google reviews show Almir is not the only one to accuse Secret Shop of fraud. A number of furious foreigners complain that they were also tricked.
Some say the shop assistant altered the price, adding an extra zero to the bill. Others, like Benjamin Chang from Taiwan, claim they were scammed in a manner similar to Almir.
In Chang’s case, his Tinder date brought him to Secret Shop to buy her some clothes for the spa she invited him to. He ended up paying Hr 10,000 ($385) for a bag.
“I said: ‘everything’s price is unbelievably high.’ They said: ‘the import tax is very very high in Ukraine,’” he wrote in a Google review.
The taxi then took them to his hotel so he could collect his clothing for the spa. He then paid Hr 700 ($26) for the taxi, an exceedingly high rate for Ukraine, and went inside the building. When he returned, the driver and the girl were gone.
Secret Shop did not respond to the Kyiv Post’s request for comment.
The scam was smart, Almir said. Even his skills as a data analyst did not help him to find Maria. The Kyiv Post called her but her phone was out of range.
“She is like a ghost,” Almir said.
Editor’s Note: This report is part of the Investigative Hub project, within which the Kyiv Post monitors investigative reports in the Ukrainian media and brings them to the English-speaking audience, as well as produces original investigative stories. The project is supported by the National Endowment for Democracy.