As our daily lives increasingly migrate into online spaces, there is still one experience that popular wisdom would have us believe cannot be replicated in digital form – love. It’s tempting to believe in this truism and in the sanctity of IRL chemistry, but as online dating services and apps proliferate, the line becomes increasingly blurred.
These murky digital spaces have become fertile territory for online dating scams, which are the focus of Sofija Stefanovic’s new book, You’re Just Too Good To Be True. Stefanovic is a Serbian-Australian writer and investigative journalist now living in New York. Her book examines the experiences of several victims whose hearts and bank accounts were destroyed by their online ‘relationships’ with scammers. Stefanovic spoke to KYD to share some of the insights which emerged during her immersion in this little-known world.
Since the early nineties, when online communication became first accessible and then ubiquitous, young people have had the message hammered into them from early childhood: ‘Don’t trust anyone you meet online.’ It may seem self-evident truth that a person’s profile on a dating site does not necessarily depict them with full accuracy, but Stefanovic says it’s unfair to criticise victims who’ve been tricked by a scammer. ‘Scam victims get a bad reputation,’ she says. ‘Our society is pretty mean to them, and they’re often made fun of, or seen as being foolish or gullible. The scam victims I met were usually smart, educated people, who happened to be at a vulnerable point in their life.’
A range of factors may contribute to this vulnerability. True, scam victims are often first-time users of online dating sites. But they are also susceptible for a host of other reasons, Stefanovic says: ‘Often (but not always) scam victims are: older, divorced or separated, retired (scammers like to go for people who might have superannuation and pensions), live alone (kids have moved out), religious (if your dating profile says you are, scammers will flock – as the notion of ‘giving’ is something they can take advantage of). But the most significant thing is that victims are at a vulnerable point in their life. They are ready to be scammed, because they are lonely and weakened (by a separation, or loneliness, or fear). So they are willing to go with a relationship that presents itself, even if it seems a bit suspicious. They are willing to suspend disbelief because they want the contact so much.’
Stefanovic’s stories of various scam victims and their losses are heart-breaking. The most successful scammers extract hundreds of thousands, or even millions of dollars from their victims, and do so by treating them as objects, not people. Though there is a repeated and inevitable pattern to these scams, each victim’s circumstances and motivations are unique.
The book’s most poignant, quietly devastating figure is Bill, an elderly scam victim and friend of Stefanovic. After decades of marriage and fatherhood spent in the closet, Bill found his life’s great soul mate in Lee, but their romance was later thwarted by distance and tragedy. Bill’s elegiac, bittersweet recollections of Lee pepper You’re Just Too Good To Be True like fragments from a Marguerite Duras novel. Later in life, Bill turns to online dating, where he met and fell for a person he believed was Miller Duncan, an American soldier stationed in Afghanistan. In many respects, Bill fits the profile of an ideal scam victim, says Stefanovic. ‘He went online when he was very lonely. He was living by himself, he didn’t have family nearby, and he wanted someone to hold him. That’s all he was looking for when he went online: companionship and love.’
In a plot worthy of a pulp-thriller, Bill was notified that his war hero lover had been killed in action, but had left him two parcels filled with money. Bill subsequently drained his savings and borrowed money from his every remaining friend in order to pay funeral costs and bribes to recover the parcels (Stefanovic and the police assigned to Bill’s case believe that, like Miller Duncan himself, the parcels never existed).
Bill seems to demonstrate a simultaneous state of knowing that he is being scammed, but refusing to allow himself to really know it. There’s a division between what he hopes, and what on some level he recognises as true; one which requires an impressive act of cognitive dissonance to maintain. This impulse makes sense, Sofija says, if you consider the psychology of Bill and others like him.
‘If you WANT to fall in love, and someone approaches you, you’re more likely to look past some things. For example, a scammer may forget you have a dog, even though you’ve talked about your cavoodle a million times. This doesn’t seem right. But then (as you are looking for love, and you remember your lonely life before), perhaps you overlook that, and keep going.’
If the victim believes they are in a mutually loving relationship, the revelation that their partner actually only cares about them for their money is both humiliating and emotionally devastating. Being duped by a scammer is the worst possible alternative – maintaining belief in a lie can be more appealing. And this act of self-duplicity may not be uncommon.
‘You may think up an excuse for your scammer,’ Sofija says, ‘even though, in the back of your head, you’ve got little alarm bells ringing. I’ve certainly been in relationships with people who aren’t right, but I’ve kept the relationship going, and gone against my better judgement, even if they turned out to be a dick. A scammer, even though they are trying to use you for money, is still someone who contacts you every day. If you’re lonely, this is a big deal. Some scammers even send gifts, they tell you how beautiful you are and that they love you.’
Many people would probably assume that if a person has been scammed once and discovered the truth, they’d find it hard to trust anyone they meet online again, but Bill and others like him fall for multiple, ongoing scams – despite the worsening emotional and financial situation it places them in.
In her research, Stefanovic spoke to experts from various psychological and criminological fields, attempting to get to the root of why victims continue to trust their scammers and send them money, sometimes to the point of destitution, without ever receiving anything tangible in return. It can be a form of addiction, she says. ‘Scam victims can become addicted to their scam, and like other addicts, they are obsessed with compulsively repeating their behaviour. I think this happens for many addictions. People are burnt by their substance of choice, but keep going back, because that’s how addiction works.’
What is the ‘payoff’ for a scam victim that keeps them coming back for more, if there’s no sustained emotional or monetary gain? ‘There’s no real payoff, and it’s harmful, yet you keep doing it because you can’t stop. For example, many elderly people who get scammed don’t have many social interactions. Even if it isn’t genuine, someone is telling you they love you all the time. You feel beautiful again. Maybe it makes you remember positive loving relationships you had in the past.’
Stefanovic hosts the New York arm of the much-loved Women of Letters event series, focusing on ‘the lost art of letter writing’. Does she believe the contemporary online communications used in courtships between scammers and their victims, have a place in the old-fashioned epistolary tradition which WoL celebrates?
‘The internet is proving to be a great home for scammers, but the internet is so much more than that. I love that today, thanks to the internet, elderly people can meet others, and perhaps find love online. Scamming is an unfortunate aspect of the online world, but there are plenty of lovely non-criminal things we can thank the internet for. Yes, many people have found love online. They’ve found niches they can belong to, those who are marginalised and ostracised by society can find likeminded people and establish contact and bonds. I do think that letter writing is a lost art. But I also think that people find surprising ways to express themselves and new ways to be creative thanks to the internet that weren’t available before.’
The interactions between scammers and victims raise philosophical conundrums – can victims truly be in love with a person who doesn’t actually exist? Possibly, Sofija says. ‘I’ve certainly idealised people I’ve dated, attributed certain positive characteristics, ignored negative ones. If you want to be loved, and want to believe your relationship is good, you often get into denial and turn a blind eye to things that are not-so-nice. Also, if you have a perfect partner in mind, who exists in your fantasy, it is possible to project this into someone, even if they don’t really possess all those lovely qualities. We can see all sorts of things in other people that aren’t really there, so I think it is absolutely possible to form a relationship with someone, even if they aren’t genuine.’
If they believe they share a genuine emotional connection – at least for a time – as strong as that offered by an authentic online-only relationship, is there any difference? It’s emotionally fraught territory, and Stefanovic treads delicately and empathetically through the emotional minefield of romance scams. Compassion is essential, she says. After all, ‘we all want to be loved. And scam victims get taken advantage of by criminals, and lose all their money PLUS they are heartbroken.’
It’s almost enough to make you log out and switch off for good. Almost.