Updated: Sep 14
On Thursday, August 20th 2020, I was contacted on LinkedIn by a man wanting to connect. There was nothing unusual about that; and as a fledgling businesswoman, I accepted without much thought.
I should have dug a little deeper, or at least paid attention to my hunches when I glanced over his profile. You see, the red flags were there, right in front of me, and I just ignored them.
I'll backtrack, so you have some context.
I had been chatting with my sister about the Hug Deficiency being experienced by many people (including me) during the pandemic that is 2020. We had talked about teddy bears (and I thought, "no substitute"), and I had gone back to my car. I decided that, after many years of avoiding internet dating sites, I'd set up a profile. If I had to be in a conjugal relationship to get a hug, then so be it!!
I saw the LinkedIn notification on my mobile phone, glanced at the invitation to connect which had a mutual contact (whom I'd met a number of times), and clicked "Accept" with nary a thought. I wanted to quickly set up a profile on an internet dating site, and then go shopping. I didn't want to waste time on details!!
So, I got a profile, put in a height (not quite my height but close enough), and a few words. My headline was a little quirky, and my "About me" section was hardly two sentences, tops. Really, no effort, and no physical details or "deal-breakers" - nothing. Within minutes (I kid you not), I started receiving emails - not just simple "If you like me, kiss/wink/poke/whatever". Men oozed out of the woodwork, and for every message they sent, I also got an email from the site. All free. What a return on investment!
I also received a note from the person on LinkedIn, who called himself "Richard Terry Michael", to say "thanks for connecting" and something about his hope for positive outcomes. I had my suspicions about his three firstname name ... but I responded, because it's the polite thing to do!
He started sending me messages, to which I responded, because I like to be polite. All innocuous stuff like being an engineer for Shell and being based in Belgium, but he then took it off to another platform, with the excuse that LinkedIn was a "business platform". I agree, it is.
It's not the first time I've chatted on other platforms like that, because I've met really lovely and interesting people - face-to-face - from LinkedIn.
He asked to chat on WhatsApp or Google Hangouts, and so I agreed to chat on WhatsApp. He provided a number (+1 631-xxx-xxxx) and because it looked international, I didn't give it a second thought. I decided to go with the flow, because that's my mantra; and we just texted. You bet my suspicions were heightened - why not talk on the phone?! Will I pick his accent is all wrong?
I asked how his wife feels about him contacting random women on the internet, and he said that she was "late", as in deceased. Strange word to use ... and of course, this was another red flag.
He asked if I had kids, so I asked him the same question; a 12 year old daughter, back home in California. What kind of person willingly leaves their only child in a country halfway across the world with a non-family-member?
I said that it must be terrible to be parted from his daughter for so long, and that video calls would be essential. I was fishing at this point for a way to have a video call, and he said they weren't allowed! An excuse to not show his face .... hmmm.
He had a story to pull your heart-strings - his mother dumped him at an orphanage in 1969 when he was aged 3, and his foster parents adopted him 5 years later. They, too, were "late" rather than deceased. When he told me the orphanage story, he said that his original surname was "Billy" but he changed it to his foster father's name of "Michael". Surely, he was kidding. He made me read that story a second time later on with more serious context, and I did find lots of orphanages in the town where he "grew up". So, I kept my scam-adar on silent, while I baited for more information ....
The whole time, he would compliment me. I have a pretty good level of self-confidence, so I can both take the compliments and take them with a grain of salt (if you know what I mean). But ... it's still nice to have your ego stroked ... I don't know a person alive who would not enjoy a compliment.
Meanwhile, that internet dating site was taking off! I couldn't keep up with all the emails. Although I said I only wanted men who lived locally and were aged 54-59, I got all the ages outside that range, and they were from everywhere around Australia. This meant that I had perspective - if it's attention from just one man, then it's easier to fall for him; but when you have attention from multiple parties, you have a better chance of staying strong! But a 21 year old?? Really??
I was overwhelmed by all this contact. Normally, I don't do the internet dating, because it bores me, and the same people are on all the sites. I have never found the love of my life that way, nor have I found an approximation. This time around, I was too busy to think about boredom! Some of the men even sent photos, unsolicited. I just wanted to go hide under a rock and not see the emails popping up every few minutes. So, I shut it down.
Meanwhile, romantic pursuit from LinkedIn Man escalated over a matter of days.
He would text at various times as though he was romantically obsessed. I noted what times he'd send a message, and if he was in Belgium, or anywhere in the EU, he would have been starting his texts at about 11 pm his time (7 am, my time). Whereas, if he was in (say) Nigeria, it would have been closer to 2 am for him. While that fit a Belgium timeslot, what didn't was when he'd text at other times of day and night, like 3-10 pm, my time. This would be 7 am to 2 pm, Belgium, meaning he wasn't doing much "work". Shell could sack a person for dereliction of duties. It was 10 am to 5 pm, Nigeria time, though .... What a great work day!! But, he would text at other times too; when was he sleeping??? Maybe there was more than one person running the scam??
Finally, I thought, it had to end. He'd started sending me photos of himself (nothing lewd), and photos of a girl aged 10-12 (again, nothing lewd, thankfully). This was to get photos out of me. Now, remember, he'd been stroking my ego. When you feel that nice oxytocin-feeling that comes from ego-stroking, you want to send your best self. Prettiest, sexiest, most alluring self. I have no lewd photos. He was not ever going to get that lucky!!!!!!!
I texted, that it was stupid that we weren't talking, with our voices. I made him call me, and he sounded distinctly un-American. In fact, although he spoke English, he wasn't completely audible. This is apparently, very typical of this type of scam.
So, I decided to contact all of his LinkedIn connections to get evidence and to warn them. This meant looking at his profile, and he would see that I was looking at it, instead of responding to him on WhatsApp. I clicked on the profile photo to inspect it, and the html showed words like "likeability" and "empathy". It was as if the photo had been processed through a social cognition program to see what kinds of response it generated, or it was from a research database of photos that studied that concept. Either way, someone's image was being used nefariously.
As at 25/08/2020, the profile of "Richard Terry Michael" had 366 connections, of whom 4 were male. Such a red flag!!
If I had checked his connection network on the first day, I would have ignored his invitation to connect.
Most of his connections worked in humanities and caring roles - psychologists, nutritionists, social workers, educators and mental health advocates. These are people who are both empathic and non-judgemental: perfect targets.
I sent them all connection requests, so I could ask them about their experiences. It seems I wasn't the only one to whom he'd reached out, but I was the only one to take it this far. And I mean that - I took it this far. I don't minimise my responsibility in the story, because I had ample opportunity to stop proceedings a lot earlier. But - and it's a pretty big human but - I am human, and therefore I like the odd compliment. I don't go around asking for them, and I don't normally get them in this unsolicited way. But I like them, just the same!
It's the unsolicited ego-stroke that makes you addicted and an active participant. You encourage the other party to keep going, because you like what they tell you. Texting over a time difference slows things down, so you're not as aware of the rushed romancing taking place. It just feels good and you look forward to that message when you wake up; and that other message when he wakes up across the other side of the world. Someone's thinking of you enough to let you know. It's like you're being loved across space and time, by someone who really knows you (even though you mightn't have given anything away).
Ultimately, I blocked him on WhatsApp, reported his profile to LinkedIn, and labelled his number "SCAM". It looks like his profile has been deleted (I assume by LinkedIn). I reported him on Scamwatch and the US Federal Trade Commission.
Once he realised he couldn't contact me on WhatsApp, he tried calling my number directly. I didn't answer. He tried calling from another number (+32 460 xxxxxx), and that's when I realised the area codes for those countries. The original number had a New York area code (+1 for USA, and 631 for New York; 14 hours behind me), but the second number was Belgian. He's still trying to call me today.
Am I any wiser? Gee, I hope so!!!
I've had hunches of scammers (not to ever go this far) that say they are journal publishers and marketing firms, and often the journal emails come from someone with two first names (like Lily Jane).
I've had them on Twitter too. One of the Twitter scams was someone using a photo of Prince Harry, but getting his name just a little bit wrong. The scammers usually claim to be US citizens, who are either in the military on assignment in a place like Afghanistan; engineers on an oil rig or a doctor with an international organisation somewhere far away. They're always away from home. There is usually a story of childhood adversity. They either have one child back home, or are in the process of adopting an orphan. They say they are making plans to visit you, but there is an emergency and they need you to open a bank account (so they can launder money through it). And that's when you get stung, because you are receiving proceeds of a crime (they have blackmailed or otherwise manipulated money out of other victims, and you're next).
But, here's the thing that stays with me now. I think that there is a real guy out there whose picture and profile were duplicated with a new name and contact details, and a teenage girl whose image was also used without permission. I feel for them the most. The photo I have used, is of this man allegedly wearing a Batman costume, for a Halloween party. It's little details that make it feel real, until you look more closely.
The guy whose image has been used was probably targeted and groomed like me; and now they have his treasured photos, they will keep on using him and his "daughter" and getting away with it. It could happen again, so I want to get the warning out.
This could happen to you.
You could be targeted innocuously, complimented and groomed. You could have your photos used without your permission to groom someone else. And on it goes, until someone is scammed out of their life-savings through blackmail or sob stories.
It happens to women, but it also happens to men. Be warned!!