I felt I had stumbled into a subculture I had been completely unaware of when I signed up for my first online dating site on my birthday. But two and a half months later, soon after I signed on to a second site, I felt like Dorothy being told she wasn’t in Kansas anymore.
To be sure, the first site had its share of scammers and ridiculously young men contacting me. And some of the scammers were pretty sophisticated in their approach. One scammer contacted me days after the breakup with Derek. I laughed out loud when I saw his photo, not because he was unattractive or had a silly expression, but because he looked like a male model. I was immediately skeptical. But one photo in the lineup had been taken at a fast food joint. It was not professionally done, as the others had been, and it represented the same man in a much more casual pose. It wasn’t even focused well, though it was recognizably the same man. I was still skeptical, but I felt a bit like an anthropologist and wanted to see how my communication with this man might play out.
We texted one another and talked on the phone a few times. He said he was American by birth, but he had live in Switzerland most of his life and had only returned to the US a year or so earlier when his mother died. He definitely had an accent, and I had been around the Swiss enough to find the accent potentially Swiss, but I remained skeptical. He said he was a software guy working in the security industry as an independent contractor who had crews working for him to do implementations. He lived in Lakewood (a city of about 150,000 on the southwest side of the Denver area). I was familiar with Lakewood and asked what part of Lakewood he lived in. When he said, “Near the town center,” I tucked it away as a vote in the scammer column. I didn’t know anyone who would have referred to where they lived in Lakewood that way.
For the most part, though, he deflected personal questions–another check in the scammer column. He was also far too quick to use terms of endearment with me: honey, honey-lamb. Did anyone actually use the endearment honey-lamb anymore? It was a little creepy. He wanted to develop a relationship with a woman slowly and put off meeting on the grounds that he was working many hours on a big project. I packed it all in my mental anthropological journal. My internal BS detector was so loud that it banged my skull from the inside.
But it wasn’t until one particular text that I was sure. He wanted to know what I had been doing one fine day. I had just finished a book editing project and had been running errands all day. I texted about where I’d been and what I’d done. His reply text was, “That’s a lot to do. You must work so hard. How do you play sometimes?”
Yes, the last sentence lacked the kind of sytax that a native speaker of the English language would use, but it was the “You must work so hard” line that set off the internal alarms. If I was a scammer in Sierra Leone or some other Third World country, I might be wired to think and speak that way.
He must have picked up on the fact that I wasn’t buying his line, or he came to the conclusion that I was unlikely to be swept away by a good looking guy giving me attention, or both. Or maybe he just had a better prospect for scamming. I stopped getting texts from him.
A couple of weeks later, I got a call from him. “You haven’t been replying to my texts,” he said. “Have you been getting them? I’ve been in England working on a project, and I didn’t have a text from you the entire time I was gone.”
I rolled my eyes on my end of the line. No, I hadn’t received any texts from him. As he talked, I got the sense that he was trying to get a feel for whether or not the sudden loss of communication from him had made me desperate, or even concerned. Of course, it had not. He did not like my coolness. If he had been wondering if I could be groomed, over time, into falling for him and sending him big chunks of money, he had to be losing any confidence in that possibility.
And then the most brilliant thing happened. As his confidence flagged, he lost his Swiss accent for just a few words. But it was enough for me to hear that the accent sounded decidedly African. He was toast, and he seemed to realize it. It ended quickly after that. He asked if I was dating anyone else, and I admitted that I was still on the dating site and going out with other men. This was unacceptable to him. He hung up on me.
As a dating anthropologist, it was a wonderful experience that allowed me to get a feel for how scammers operate. But once I was also on the new site, I was flabbergasted by the sheer numbers of scammers contacting me. Most were not as sophisticated as my fake Swiss friend. The first ones used language poorly, making them easy to spot. But those who showed up after the first wave were a bit better at it. Some had full profiles that were well worded, but their messages to me often lacked the same level of communication sophistication. I suspected that they had copied the actual profiles of legitimate men or perhaps combined parts of several profiles.
But another giveaway that could only be apparent after numerous contacts from seemingly different men was that bits of the same or similar text kept showing up. And there seemed to be a pattern in the online monikers they gave themselves. Often, they had a predictable series of numbers as part of the moniker.
All of this was good research material for the dating anthropologist and writer in me. I sat back, made mental notes, and stayed neutral enough to remain objective like a good little anthropologist.
But what threw me were the contacts from youngsters–men between nineteen and their late forties. Many were blatant, clearly wanting a hookup. One even suggested that he would consume a part of my anatomy not typically a part of heterosexual assignations. Some seemed to be playing cat-and-mouse games. All of them were a mystery to me, but two of them were intriguing enough to prompt more than a couple of messages pointing out the difference in age and stating that I did not date men young enough to be my son. I was willing to interact with them and see where it led. More anthropological research. At least, that was my intent.
They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Was trading messages with these men innocent research, or was I risking a direct trip to dating hell?
Note: The name Derek is fictitious and has been used out of respect for the man involved.
Copyright 2016 by Melanie Mulhall