Women lose millions to romance scammers but there is no reason to be ashamed for wanting to love

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Illustration by Getty Images
Illustration by Getty Images
  • Many women have fallen victim to the lies of men who are after nothing but their money.
  • These romance scammers are the bogeymen for our digital age, but victims are often dismissed for being "gullible".
  • Alexandra English reveals the "silent epidemic" of the love con, and how youth, wits and intelligence are no guarantee we won't succumb.

It took less than three months for Jan Marshall's online lover to convince her to give him $260 000 (over R3.8 million). Or "lend" it, rather, since he was a British engineer with millions of pounds in his bank account and the (forged) statements to prove it.

He would pay her back, he said, he was just having trouble on a job site in Dubai and needed a little bit to tide him over; his taxes were due, but he couldn't access his account; he was robbed on his way to pay those taxes, so needed to borrow the same amount again.

After 72 days of contact, she never heard from him again.

READ MORE | 'I scammed a scammer' - How this Cape Town woman got back at her lying, scheming online dating match

A similar thing happened to Florida woman Debby Montgomery Johnson. She gave more than $1.7 million (almost R25 million) to a man she had been in a two-year online relationship with. Montgomery Johnson, a widowed mother of four, had been a paralegal, a US Air Force intelligence officer and a senior bank manager.

Yet her diligent checking and reliable resources still weren't enough to see through Dr Eric Cole, a travelling British widower who was actually a young scammer in Nigeria. "When he told me the past two years had all been a scam, my heart fell out of my chest," she says. "I felt worse than when my husband had died."

We're all too familiar with stories of love gone wrong online, where women (and some men, but mostly women) suffer emotional and financial devastation once their digital Prince Charming disappears.

Their stories are quickly turned into clickbait headlines and their vulnerabilities exploited for the enjoyment of internet trolls. Likewise, the tales of romance cons that happen in person are turned into podcasts and TV series that are so slickly produced that it's easy to forget that real people were hurt.

When we devour these tales, we develop a taste for more perverse entertainment rather than an understanding of what it's like to experience something so utterly shattering.

"A lot of people watch these stories to feel superior," says life and relationship coach Megan Luscombe.

"People get quite annoyed when somebody's scammed because it reminds us that, OMG, that could have been me. I'm scared and I don't want that to happen to me, so I'm going to be angry with you."

READ MORE | Why I decided to stay with my boyfriend after finding out he's a scammer, plus expert advice

But it's not entertainment when you're the one at the centre of the story. The award-winning Australian journalist Stephanie Wood discovered just how many women are conned by their in-person lovers after she shared her experience of dating a man she refers to as 'Joe', who led her to believe he was a wealthy farmer and retired architect, with a harbourfront property and a farm on the New South Wales Southern Tablelands.

After a blissful couple of months and then a year of disappearances and excuses and apologies, Wood broke it off, only to later discover that he had a criminal record, no fixed address and another girlfriend.

She discovered what she calls a "silent epidemic" of "women whose lives have been ripped apart by this wicked behaviour".

The problem with all kinds of romance scams is that the red flags are obvious to those watching from a mile away: they're huge, flapping in the wind, flailing around like the balloon goons outside car dealerships. And yet they're invisible to the person being conned.

In Wood's book about her experience, Fake, she describes how hindsight bias makes it easy for outsiders to judge. From a safe distance, we know these people are conmen, and the more information we have, the harder it is to put ourselves in the position of someone who doesn't have that information, meaning we overestimate how easy it should have been for her to see the red flags.

READ MORE | Woman finds out about ex-husband's infidelity in the newspaper's wedding announcement section

Daisy Armstrong, whose experience of a romantic con is truly stranger than fiction, describes a similar feeling. "Until you actually go through it, it's very easy to pass judgement on how stupid someone must be," she says, adding that while she was in the relationship, it felt like she was having an out-of-body experience. "It was almost like I wasn't myself - I just ignored everything, which was so weird." 

Wood says: "There are all sorts of reasons in the first stages of dating that our judgement is impaired. Your very primitive brain is working in overdrive and your frontal lobe — the logical, reasonable part of your brain that is responsible for making rational decisions — is not working at its best."

Wood found herself in a similar position to Montgomery Johnson. These women are professional interviewers and researchers with the resources to conduct extensive background checks, and yet: "Intelligence is not an indicator of who will fall for a love con or not," Wood explains.

"When your brain goes into that love mode in the early stages of a relationship, we're not thinking clearly."

We deceive ourselves and feed off confirmation bias. 

We want this one to work, so we place value on some information at the expense of other information.

Wood, for example, confirmed Joe's harbourfront address with a glance at his driver's licence and found out his grandfather really was the prominent businessman Joe said he was. But title searches and background checks were never done.

"The bottom line is I didn't want to look, which I think is a very normal response," she says. "You don't want to think, 'This isn't right'. So I did turn my back on things that worried me."

READ MORE | 'I'm a lawyer and money isn't everything to me, so I prefer dating broke men, here's why'

In Armstrong's case, there wasn't any information to look at, because her accused scammer adopted a new identity for every new partner. They met on Tinder in 2016 and had a six-month relationship before everything came to light. Before he met Armstrong, he had apparently presented himself as an heir to the Myer family fortune, who wanted to make a donation worth millions to Sydney's St Vincent's Hospital.

His virtue and philanthropy were so convincing that Jane Ferguson, sister to royal Sarah, reportedly let him stay at her Point Piper home. He went to functions with politicians and musicians. It wasn't until the hospital looked into him in anticipation of the donation that it discovered he wasn't who he claimed to be. Four years later, he was at the door of Armstrong's family farmhouse.

She believes she was one of a string of wealthy farmers' daughters he'd started to set his sights on. "He turned himself into the perfect match for me," she says. "You hear the word 'soulmate' thrown around, but I thought maybe this guy is it! We have so much in common! But he had just moulded himself into it because he could pinpoint my insecurities. If these people could use their intelligence for good, they would be able to do something really great."

Wood agrees: "They're fiendishly clever."

READ MORE | Groom pretends to be the bride's brother to get a date with the wedding makeup artist

Marshall says: "The first part of their task is to make you fall in love with them because, once you have, they know they've got you. Once you're past that state, you will risk anything, you will be very generous and you'll do anything they tell you to. I know a woman who had been told by her bank that her money had been sent to scammers, but the scammers are so effective that people don't believe it. She closed her account and went to another bank.

"That's just indicative of the degree of hypnosis and brainwashing - even in the face of authority, people reject what they're being told in favour of the conman."

Last April, Topic Magazine interviewed an anonymous Nigerian online romance scammer, who put it this way: "It's almost like you're collecting their brains. They don't think anymore."

After Wood shared her story, dozens came forward to relate similar experiences.

It's silent because of the shame, Armstrong says. "Why would anyone put their story out there to be ridiculed by people who don't know you or the whole story?"

Do you have a story to share with us? Tell us about it here.

She understands, but takes umbrage with silence, instead creating a website with her accused scammer's face and list of aliases, which stopped a woman in the US from marrying him. (He denies wrongdoing.) The best thing to do, Armstrong says, is reclaim your power. "Take back what they've stolen from you, so they're left with nothing - they've failed. If they manage to keep you meek and quiet and blame yourself, they win."

READ MORE | 13 relationship red flags to watch out for

The silver lining, if there is one, is people continuing to fall for romance cons is evidence of our endless capacity to hope — something we should cling to in times like these.

"We've all believed in something because we wanted it to be true," Luscombe says. "We see something and we think, I want this to be true because it would make me so happy. Falling for these scams doesn't come from a place of delusion. It's from a place of hope."

Wood says: "There is no reason to be ashamed of wanting to love. There is no reason to be ashamed for trusting someone or seeking a partner or being vulnerable. These are things that are really super-normal human motivations and none of us should be ashamed of them."

Marshall agrees: "What you have to realise is that the longing we have to connect with others is a basic human trait. It doesn't decline with age. It's stronger, sometimes.

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