From The New York Times, I’m Miya Lee.
And I’m Dan Jones. This is the Modern Love podcast.
Today’s essay loops in people from Hungary to Brazil to Chicago.
Right. And it takes place near the beginning of the pandemic, when people were isolated, and they were feeling just especially vulnerable and alone and reaching out.
And reaching out the only way that they could, which was on the internet.
The essay is called, “How I Got Caught Up in a Global Romance Scam.”
It’s written by Michael McAllister and read by Eric Martin.
This past spring, my inboxes began filling with messages from heartbroken women. The first came through Instagram. “Hey, I’m Lina. I live in Germany. Someone is using your pictures for scamming.”
Her profile revealed a woman who looked to be near my age — late 40s, wearing black, framed glasses. She told me she had met the guy on Tinder, but after a few months of exchanging messages, she grew suspicious of his motives. Her daughter image-searched his photos on Google, which led them to my profile.
“I felt a bit in love with you,” she said. “I thought I’d have some luck to meet a wonderful person from England.” The fake me was Simon, an investment banker from outside of London. He had sent Lina photos of me and my dog, Agnes. He’d called him Pom Pom.
Some basic facts. I’m a single copywriter in Western Massachusetts who finds the name Pom Pom embarrassing. Also, I’m gay. “Everything was fake,” Lina wrote. “I only want to be happy. I think my day will come. Are you looking for a partner? It makes me sad that so good-looking a guy is not interested in women.”
The next week, I heard from a woman in Hungary. “I was fooled by your photos. He called himself Harvard from Colorado. I thought you were the man. I fell in love.”
A woman in Santa Barbara — “Embarrassing, but I kind of became obsessed with you. Not sure why I felt compelled to share this with you, except to maybe purge my obsession. I’m not looking for anything.”
Friends told me I should feel flattered that someone would consider me attractive enough to use as bait, but it felt gross that some version of me was preying upon the vulnerable.
This all started last spring when virus fears, mounting unemployment, and the loneliness of digital life combined to create a perfect environment for online romantic scams. These women didn’t strike me as being especially gullible. They were just looking for love from the confines of their homes, like so many others.
I had been single for years following a divorce. A stranger glancing at my photos may have seen someone trying to look happy. But as one woman from Nebraska wrote, “You’ve got sad eyes.”
They were generous in letting me know about the scams, but their messages held complicated layers. For months, each woman had built something with this fake me. In the wake of the scams collapse, the real me was all that was left to absorb their bitterness and provide what they hadn’t yet received: honesty.
It wasn’t hard for me to relate. Many years ago, when catfish was still just known as a fish, I was a 20-something man in San Francisco who fell for a fellow blogger many states away. Over two years, we grew closer and closer by email and phone. But every plan for us to meet in person, always mysteriously fell through.
In the end, I was able to peel back the layers of his lies. He was not a museum curator in Pittsburgh. He lived in his parents’ basement in Dubuque. That experience devastated me, but also helped me understand all too well how these women could fall for a stranger online, and how he could use their hope against them.
I told them I was sorry that someone using my photos had caused them so much pain. I risked causing them more pain by telling them they weren’t the only victims, but I figured they deserved the truth.
My photos were circulating all over, creating new personas — a Chicago stockbroker, an Oregon park ranger, a dog-walker named Larry. I couldn’t stop it. I couldn’t even confront the imposter, or could I?
As spring turned to summer, I kept thinking about one email from a woman who had shared the phone number the imposter had used to chat with her on WhatsApp. I recognized his area code as one from my hometown, Minneapolis. But phone numbers can be faked. I decided I would text him.
This was no small act for me. I’ll do anything to avoid confrontation, but I needed to know. I had a WhatsApp account, but I crept up to the guy sideways. At least, I assumed it was a guy. I stripped my profile of photo and name and texted just one word: “Hi.”
A minute passed. The word hung like a baited hook. Then, a reply.
“Who are you, please?”
I had intended to scam the scammer, to pose as a lonely woman before eventually revealing my identity. But my motive was to dig for the truth, so I abruptly decided to come at him from the same place.
“When I tell you who I am,” I wrote, “don’t be afraid.” I sent him my photo.
He responded simply, “LOL.”
“I think you know who I am now,” I wrote. “I’ll never ask you for your real name, and I can’t get you into trouble.”
It took several minutes of tense back and forth for him to believe my identity. Yes, the irony. He asked how I found him, and I told him how, but not who. He kept asking which woman had revealed his number.
I told him, “you’ve hurt them enough.”
“Well,” he wrote, “I’m actually sorry for using your pictures.”
“I appreciate that.”
“I only did this to get money for my poor family. Unfortunately no one gave me money. I kept trying, but it’s kept failing.”
When I pressed him, he said he first built a relationship and “made them love me.” After a few weeks, he would ask for money for hypothyroid surgery — $2,000. “But nobody paid me.”
When I asked about the Minneapolis number, he said he lived in Brazil.
“Are you married?”
“Why do you ask?” he said. “I know you gay.”
“I guess I was wondering if you were lonely, too.”
He told me he had a girlfriend and a two-year-old son, and that he had lost his cashier job when the pandemic hit. “We are safe,” he wrote, “but we are hungry.”
He told me he had found my pictures on Instagram, liked my tattoos and figured I made a believable lure. “I hope you are not angry with me,” he said.
And I wasn’t, not really. But I couldn’t quite believe him. So I didn’t know where to hang my feelings. Then he asked me the question I’d been dreading.
“Can you help me?”
The man who had stolen my photos to scam lonely people was now asking me for money. So much of our willingness to help other people depends upon what we know of their lives. Without being able to confirm anything he said, could I believe his story? Of course not. Still, he had answered my questions. What was that worth?
I told him I barely made enough to get by. “It won’t be much, maybe $25.”
“Can you send an iTunes card with it?”
“I thought you were hungry.”
“Yes, but $25 is very small, my friend.”
Indeed, it is.
I learned he had tried to scam only one of the women who had contacted me, although he had a list of 10 others I knew nothing about. If that was true, it meant there was more than one impostor using my pictures in more than one location.
“I won’t use your pics anymore,” he said.
I thanked him and closed the app. Our whole exchange reminded me of the blogger who had led me on for too long. Without facts, without trust, human connection fails. And what is trust on the internet except a suspension of disbelief?
I haven’t sent him money, but I keep thinking about his son, who I believe may exist. Maybe. I’ve always been more sucker than cynic, but in any case, my impostor and I may not be done with each other.
“So how is life in America?” he texted recently. I may still respond. In the meantime, I’m learning to live with the discomfort of knowing my images are still being used in ways I can barely imagine.
I keep in touch with some of the women. We comment on each other’s Instagram posts and send occasional texts.
“I hope you find the right man, too,” Lina told me recently. Whether I do or not, the human connection during a pandemic may be worth the heartache, however it finds me.
I try not to obsess over all the things my stand-ins are saying on the internet to other lonely people, but it seems they’ve been busy. If you find yourself messaging with one, I hope he tells you you’re beautiful. I hope that you believe it, even if you don’t believe him. I’ve learned it’s important to peel back the lies until you can see the truth.
Michael McAllister is still getting emails from women around the world, and he still writes back to each one.
He put us in touch with two of the women. After the break, we’ll hear from them.
My name is Robin, and I live in Michigan.
I am Michelle Merkes, and I’m from Kenosha, Wisconsin.
I hadn’t been on a date since before I married my husband, which was over 20 some years ago. The last time I was on a date was 1991, put it that way. So I was just looking for a guy to come take me out for dinner, have a good time and (LAUGHING) bring me home.
I’ve been divorced 12 years. I tried dating five years ago, and I just wasn’t ready. But I had just recently started dating again on the website.
So I’m on Plenty of Fish right now.
POF — Plenty of Fish. It’s a free website. Some people to pay for it, but it’s basically free. I was on POF. I was talking to a few people here and there, and then I clicked on his profile because I liked his picture. I liked the tattoos. He looked like a bigger guy. Short, dark hair, with nice-looking face. He had facial hair. He had nice eyes. And he had muscles on those tattooed arms.
His profile said he was 62. He said he lived in Detroit, and he was a widow. And he was looking for somebody for long-term. And I said, OK, well I’m a widow, and it could lead to that.
It said that he was from Chicago area. He said he was 50 — a little bit younger than me, so 51 maybe? I said I liked his pictures, so I’d take a chance and message him. And I just said, “nice tats.”
He messaged back. It was within a day, and he said thanks. And he asked my name, and we just went from there as far as texting back and forth on the website.
Well, I was pretty excited. A good-looking guy like that interested in me?
He said he was in antiques.
He mined gems.
I was like, hmm, a little bit leery. But yet, as it kept going, well, maybe, you know?
Somehow we got on the discussion of hot cars. And so we would always argue about which was better. I prefer the Challenger, and he likes the Mustang. We kind of joked back and forth about that, which is awesome because I like to do that, even if it was only through texting, which I thought was weird.
I said, well, can we meet? He says, well, I got to go out of town for a while. He says, I’m going to Maine to see if I can find some antiques. I said, OK. How long are you going to be gone? He said, a couple of weeks.
Finally, one day I tried calling him, and yeah, it didn’t go through. So I knew there was something not right.
I was suspicious the whole time, but I really enjoyed our conversations, so I kept letting it go. I just kept pushing my suspicions to the back, like, let’s see where this goes.
He’s there for a couple of weeks, and then it went into another week. I said, I thought you were coming home in two weeks. Well, things are bad, and I need money for this, and I need money for that. I said, how much do you need? And he told me $1,500. I said, I don’t have that. He says, but you know you care about me. I said, I can care about somebody and still not give them $1,500.
We talked — I want to say it was at least a total of three months until I finally got smart and I googled his picture.
And the picture belonged to a writer in Massachusetts. And he was a gay man, so I knew he was not the man I was talking to.
So I said, well, what’s your last name? And that’s when he told me, McAllister. And that’s when I started looking it up, and I searched for Michael McAllister. Then there’s a lot of Michael McAllister’s on there, but only one with that picture. I said, so you’re not the real Mike McAllister? He says, I am the real Mike McAllister. I said, not according to the picture you’re not. Why would a gay writer be interested in me? He says, well, yeah, but I changed since I met you. I’m not gay anymore. I said, right. I said, there ain’t no way this woman here is going to change any man from what he already is.
I know what I look like. I’m a little, fat, old lady.
Mike, the man in the picture — from his website, I had an email address, and I let him know what was going on, that someone was using his pictures on dating websites. And he emailed me back that I was not the only one that told him this. He’s been told by a few other people that they had been catfished also with his likeness, with his pictures. And he actually said that he wrote an article for The New York Times. And when I read the article, I started laughing because it was about this.
[LAUGHS] And I thought, wow, that’s great.
I’m just glad I didn’t lose anything. Life goes on. I mean, disappointments come. I mean, it would have been nice for him to be real.
It was a letdown. I don’t want to say I was heartbroken. It was a letdown. And I think that’s kind of why I contacted Mike, just to maybe get it out of my system, to kind of purge and say, OK.
This is my goodbye now to this man in the picture.
I’ve come to the conclusion that I just have to look out for myself and be careful and warn anybody else I know on dating sites just to be careful so you don’t get ripped off.
I’ve had about close to 100 people that were scammers, and now I know just how to weed them out, so I don’t even answer when they contact me.
My niece told me, if you want to find out if the guy is real, ask him to take a selfie with a spoon. Because nobody has a selfie of himself holding a spoon up. Nobody. And most of these guys — they say, well, we don’t have any spoons. I said, how can you not have a spoon? So you know they’re not real.
I am actually dating somebody now. We’ve been doing pretty good. We also were friends first, so we’ll see where this goes.
I met this guy. He’s three hours away, though. He’s a big guy, but he worked for the phone company in Muskegon. And he’s supposed to come out this side of town next weekend, so we’re supposed to meet up and go out for dinner. So I’m excited about that because he’s my type. And, yeah, he’s real. He’s real. How do I know?
(LAUGHING) I got a selfie with a spoon. I got a selfie with a spoon.
Modern Love is produced by Julia Botero with help from Anna Martin and Hans Buetow.
It’s edited by Wendy Dorr and Daniel Guillemette.
This episode was mixed by Corey Schreppel. This week’s essay was written by Michael McAllister and read by Eric Martin. Special thanks to Robin Lipka and Michelle Merkes.
And also to Julia Simon, Mahima Chablani, Bonnie Wertheim, Anya Strzemien, Sam Dolnick, Lisa Tobin, Corey Siche and Ryan Wegner at Audm.
I’m Dan Jones.
And I’m Miya Lee. We’ll be back next week with more stories from Modern Love.
Thanks for listening.