When it comes to online dating, I am no fool. Not only have I done my fair share of it, but I even taught a course about how to write an online dating profile. Don’t bare your soul and write “Gone With the Wind.” Just stick to the Cliffs Notes version of your life. Keep it simple, upbeat, and within driving distance of reality.
I also gave pointers on online dating safety. Move on as quickly as possible from email to phone contact and, if they sound okay, meet in person in a public place. Or risk becoming the pen pal of an inmate at a maximum security prison. You don’t think prisoners have access to cell phones and the Internet? Tell that the red-faced wardens who let El Chapo escape.
So why, oh why, did I get suckered into a month-long correspondence with a Nigerian scam artist? Perhaps it was his alias: David Goldstein. The name sounded so familiar, I figured I must’ve known him in high school, sat next to him in college, or slept with him sometime between Woodstock and the fall of the Berlin Wall. I mean, why would a scammer sitting in an Internet café in West Africa choose such a common Jewish name? Oh, maybe because his profile was on JDate!
Alarms should’ve gone off as soon as David, who supposedly lived just 10 miles from me, told me that he was in Australia for the month working on a construction engineering project. But it made perfect sense. How else could he afford to pay for the new gleaming Jaguar convertible in his photo? And how on earth could I fault him, or any other “widower” in his early 60s for falling so hard for me, so fast? I really am a “slender, fun-loving, freelance writer with a passion for prune Danish.”
And yet, I have to admit there was something odd and strangely familiar about David’s long, rambling, hyper-romantic emails. They reminded me of responses I had received years ago to Craigslist postings for a roommate. They were too long, too intimate, and too gushing. Always insisting we will be “the best of friends” and assuring me that they had “good Christian values.” The tip-off was that they always wanted to send me a deposit in advance of meeting in person and asked for my bank account information so they could do a wire transfer. That’s the core of a Nigerian scam, even if the perpetrator is writing from London, Paris, or Brooklyn.
David had not yet asked for my banking information. He was still baiting the hook with enticing questions. What would I cook him for dinner if he came to my home? (Reservations for two at a Zagat-rated restaurant, medium rare.) Where am I happiest? (At the mark-down rack in Nordstrom’s.)
“What would a man have to do to melt your heart?”
That stopped me cold. Who says such things to someone they’ve never met? More importantly, who says “melt your heart” besides Hallmark?
That’s when it finally occurred to me, after weeks of flowery messages, this guy is not a 62-year-old widower in Australia. More likely, he’s a 22-year-old Nigerian guy — or gal — working away on a laptop at a Starbucks, sending pre-fabricated emails to unsuspecting members of online dating sites. When I shared his (or her) messages with friends, they said, “I saw something like this on Dateline.” They also said, “How come you didn’t notice earlier?”
Partly it was because I was giving David Goldstein a lot more leeway than I would’ve given, say, Mbaekwe Okadigbo. Or, for that matter, Joe Shmoe. In the photo, David was bald, paunchy — but he had a great smile. Plus, his Jag was grinning from headlight to headlight. I like the idea that he was a widower, as opposed to the legion of lawyers I had met who had inadvertently revealed their wife’s grounds for divorce by cross examining me before the tiramisu arrived. I wanted David to be real, so I disregarded all the obvious clues. Errors in syntax that signaled a troubled relationship with the English language. A tone that, is at the same time, intimate and yet impersonal, as if it were being cut and pasted. Which, of course, was the case.
How did it end? As these things usually do. With rancor and disgust. I asked David to provide his home address and phone number. He replied, “Why all the scrutiny? Can’t we just be happy?” However, he provided two phone numbers and an address. Neither of the numbers were in service. The address was bogus. I notified JDate of the problem and made sure that all further messages would be automatically deleted.
And yet I wonder. What is it like to be a Nigerian scammer? Do they work independently, trolling the Internet for likely targets? Or are they allied in a pyramid scheme like AmWay, with teams reporting to supervisors? Are there Nigerian Scam Conferences in Vegas where motivational speakers get thousands on their feet screaming, “What does it take to melt your heart?”