The tip-off is right there in his name: Dr. David Conner.
A podiatrist by profession, his profile says, and he’s looking for a serious relationship. Subtle humor peppers his sentences. As a writer, I like that. I don’t remember who reaches out first, but he is the one who suggests we cut the messaging and get on the phone. I’m game.
My cellphone rings around 10 p.m., and it doesn’t go well.
His words are halting and choppy. Might be a slight speech impediment. Or perhaps English is not his first language. He’s clumsy in conversation, so I pick up the slack. The next morning, he texts, calls again that night.
The verbal chop is perplexing, but time, I figure, will expose its source. He blames the poor connection on an old BlackBerry, soon to be replaced with an iPhone. His daughter’s been nagging him. I weigh whether to engage longer or move on.
My friend Susan arrives from Florida. “Give the guy more time,” she urges. “Doctors are socially awkward, podiatrists even more so, I bet.”
So we talk, we text. Damned if she isn’t right. David relaxes. We laugh. I like seeing his name on my screen.
He refers to me as “dear” well before he has reason to consider me so.
A few nights later, he ends our conversation with an audacious prediction, finished in a whisper: “After we meet this Friday, I think you’ll look at me and say, ‘That’s David. He makes me really happy.’ ” His approach could not be more timely or better scripted.
That night I write in my journal, “Yup, I’m in.”
I meet my friends Gerald, Elsa and Eric for our monthly happy hour. Like many happily married friends, Elsa and Eric live vicariously through Gerald’s and my reportage on matters of the heart.
“I believe I have a suitor,” I declare, and I outline David’s bio: United Nations doctor stationed in Syria, on leave now, at the end of his contract. His wife died of cancer three years ago. Born in Denmark, at age 15 his family moved to Utah. Yes, he still has his accent. Gerald’s eyebrows peak.
“To be honest, he’s a podiatrist, not an MD.”
“That makes him more believable,” Gerald says.
I promise to report back after we meet in the flesh on Friday.
Wednesday night, I have dinner with friends and sneak into the bathroom to read and respond to his texts. He finds my behavior so funny and cute.
Thursday at dawn David calls. “We can’t meet tomorrow,” he says, a catch in his voice.
An hour ago, the United Nations called, he says, and he must leave immediately for a briefing in New York. He redeploys Friday. Thomas, a dear friend and his replacement in Syria, was ambushed, his body found yesterday.
“I’m so sorry,” I say, sinking into a mix of horror, disappointment and care. “Tell me about him.”
He recounts a long friendship forged close through doctoring in war zones together. Soon we’re both sobbing.
“I wish I could hug you,” I say.
“How I need that,” he replies. “You’re so good, so kind. Wait for me.”
He calls before takeoff, again from New York. He doesn’t know when we’ll connect again, he says, but email might work. Get ready, I tell him, because we writers are prolific online.
“Maybe someday,” he says, “you’ll write our story.”
The last time we talk it’s 4:30 a.m. my time. I make one request: “Please, give your daughter my number. Should anything happen, I’d like to know the truth.”
“I will,” he says. Then he’s off to Syria.
Gerald, Elsa and Eric reply with texts of monosyllabic surprise. “I can hear your skepticism,” I write back, “but I know he’s legit.”
Back in Florida, Susan is aghast.
My sister, the family genealogist, goes uncharacteristically silent when I tell her. I ask if she can find David’s wife’s obituary.
My phone rings within the hour. No obit, she says, and his name isn’t on the U.N.’s list of doctors in Syria. She does, however, find detailed accounts of dating scams. Turns out my experience follows a rutted path.
So much so that around Valentine’s Day every year the FBI issues a news release cautioning hopeful lovebirds against cat-fishing scammers. In 2017, over 15,000 people in the United States were bilked out of more than $211 million through what the FBI calls confidence or romance fraud. Such schemes involve deceiving someone into believing that the perpetrator is a family member, friend or potential romantic partner. Actual losses are likely much higher. A study from the Better Business Bureau cites Federal Trade Commission estimates that fewer than 10 percent of victims report their financial losses to law enforcement.
No one’s immune. Men and women of all ages and sexual orientations are targets, although those over 50, like myself, are particularly vulnerable. Security protocols scrub undesirables from databases of reputable dating sites, pitting the good guys’ algorithms against the wiles of con men and women. Scamalytics, a company that collects dating profiles and screens them on behalf of several online dating sites, generally finds that at least 500,000 out of every 3.5 million profiles are scammers.
My dating site, eHarmony, uses its own fraud tool and model to identify and remove suspect profiles. When I asked a company spokeswoman how often scammers appear, she said the site doesn’t disclose such statistics — and that “safeguarding members is one of eHarmony’s highest priorities.”
To its credit, eHarmony did remove David’s profile and sent an email notifying me that “this decision was made in accordance with our terms and conditions, and privacy laws prohibit us from disclosing the specific reasons for our decision to close an account.” He’s my sixth match the company has removed in as many weeks. Feeling overly exposed, I delete my profile and close my account.
Unaware that the jig is up, David calls the next morning and leaves a message. Later I find a fresh email: I’ve tried to reach you. Is something wrong? Have you changed your mind about us?
Instead of replying, I call the police.
“I’m in the midst of an active fraud,” I report, “and I’d like to help catch the crooks so others don’t suffer.” I’m referred to my state attorney general.
Arleta from the AG’s office poses a series of questions.
“Does he have a foreign accent?”
“Is the connection staticky?”
“Does he phone and text you a lot, call you ‘dear’ and ‘sweetie'?”
“Yes. Just ‘dear.’ ”
“Has he asked you for money?”
“No,” I say, relieved to finally respond in the negative.
“He will,” Arleta says. “They always do.”
I offer myself up as a patsy for whatever law enforcement effort might save other marks. Arleta says it’s hopeless. They operate from all over the world. Plus, she says, there’s a never-ending supply of people to prey on.
I block his number and email, but my phone is insistent. I block calls from Washington, D.C., and Virginia but pick up the one from Upland, Calif. I have relatives who live that way.
“Kate?” says a congenial young woman. “This is Andrea.”
“I don’t know you,” I say.
“Andrea Conner. David’s daughter.”
I’ve never heard someone talk so sweetly knowing their aim is to swindle.
“Don’t call again,” I say and block her, too.
My phone finally silent, I take a long, scalding shower.
Seeking more explanation, I call Steve Baker, the author of that BBB report. “Everyone thinks they can easily tell a romance fraud,” Baker tells me, but scammers are tough to sniff out. “Perpetrators are multifaceted crooks organized in large networks who conduct a wide variety of frauds, not just one 22-year-old on his laptop in a cyber cafe.”
Baker says that increasing numbers of dating frauds are discovered while business email scams are being investigated. While being wooed, victims might unwittingly launder money or act as intermediaries. In one intricate scam, 30 or more American women were defrauded by a Nigerian operating out of South Africa. He’s now serving a 27-year sentence in Illinois, and sales of his worldwide assets will go to his victims.
To help root out fake suitors, Baker suggests running a reverse image search using Google images to see how many names pop up.
“Anybody you cannot meet in person within a week or two is probably a fraud,” Baker says. “Victims are perfectly normal people, just like you and me. Only they’re more likely to believe in true love and think they’ve found it. True love requires a leap of faith for everyone.”
It irks me that I’ll never know what was really going on with Dr. David Conner. Why did he target me? How much money has he made off unsuspecting online daters like me, and how many people does he target at once? Does he sleep well at night? Does his mother know what he does for a living?
In the absence of details, I write my own ending. I would do well with a good man; I proved it to myself with a fraud. After years in a monogamous relationship, I accept my naiveté. But foolish I’m not. These bogus beaus are simply that good.