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Not everyone using online dating sites is looking for love. Scammers create fake online profiles using photos of other people — even stolen pictures of real military personnel. They profess their love quickly. And they tug at your heartstrings with made-up stories about how they need money — for emergencies, hospital bills, or travel. Why all of the tricks? The scammers transfer stolen money into the newand then tell their victims to wire the money out of the country.

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And it takes place near the beginning of the pandemic, when people were isolated, and they were feeling just especially vulnerable and alone and reaching out. This past spring, my inboxes began filling with messages from heartbroken women. The first came through Instagram. I live in Germany. Someone is using your pictures for scamming.

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Her profile revealed a woman who looked to be near my age — late 40s, wearing black, framed glasses. She told me she had met the guy on Tinder, but after a few months of exchanging messages, she grew suspicious of his motives. Her daughter image-searched his photos on Google, which led them to my profile. He had sent Lina photos of me and my dog, Agnes. Some basic facts. I think my day will come. Are you looking for a partner? It makes me sad that so good-looking a guy is not interested in women.

Modern love podcast: trapped in a romance scam

The next week, I heard from a woman in Hungary. He called himself Harvard from Colorado. I thought you were the man. I fell in love. Not sure why I felt compelled to share this with you, except to maybe purge my obsession. Friends told me I should feel flattered that someone would consider me attractive enough to use as bait, but it felt gross that some version of me was preying upon the vulnerable. This all started last spring when virus fears, mounting unemployment, and the loneliness of digital life combined to create a perfect environment for online romantic scams. They were just looking for love from the confines of their homes, like so many others.

I had been single for years following a divorce. A stranger glancing at my photos may have seen someone trying to look happy. They were generous in letting me know about the scams, but their messages held complicated layers. For months, each woman had built something with this fake me.

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Many years ago, when catfish was still just known as a fish, I was a something man in San Francisco who fell for a fellow blogger many states away. Over two years, we grew closer and closer by and phone. But every plan for us to meet in person, always mysteriously fell through.

In the end, I was able to peel back the layers of his lies.

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He was not a museum curator in Pittsburgh. That experience devastated me, but also helped me understand all too well how these women could fall for a stranger online, and how he could use their hope against them. I told them I was sorry that someone using my photos had caused them so much pain.

My photos were circulating all over, creating new personas — a Chicago stockbroker, an Oregon park ranger, a dog-walker named Larry. As spring turned to summer, I kept thinking about one from a woman who had shared the phone the imposter had used to chat with her on WhatsApp. I recognized his area code as one from my hometown, Minneapolis.

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But phone s can be faked. I decided I would text him. This was no small act for me. I had a WhatsAppbut I crept up to the guy sideways. At least, I assumed it was a guy. I had intended to scam the scammer, to pose as a lonely woman before eventually revealing my identity. But my motive was to dig for the truth, so I abruptly decided to come at him from the same place. It took several minutes of tense back and forth for him to believe my identity.

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Yes, the irony. He asked how I found him, and I told him how, but not who. He kept asking which woman had revealed his. Unfortunately no one gave me money. He told me he had a girlfriend and a two-year-old son, and that he had lost his cashier job when the pandemic hit. He told me he had found my pictures on Instagram, liked my tattoos and figured I made a believable lure. The man who had stolen my photos to scam lonely people was now asking me for money. So much of our willingness to help other people depends upon what we know of their lives.

Without being able to confirm anything he said, could I believe his story? Of course not.

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Still, he had answered my questions. What was that worth? I learned he had tried to scam only one of the women who had contacted me, although he had a list of 10 others I knew nothing about. If that was true, it meant there was more than one impostor using my pictures in more than one location.

I thanked him and closed the app. Our whole exchange reminded me of the blogger who had led me on for too long.

Faking it — scammers’ tricks to steal your heart and money

Without facts, without trust, human connection fails. And what is trust on the internet except a suspension of disbelief? I may still respond. I keep in touch with some of the women. Whether I do or not, the human connection during a pandemic may be worth the heartache, however it finds me.

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Michael McAllister is still getting s from women around the world, and he still writes back to each one. He put us in touch with two of the women. The last time I was on a date wasput it that way. But I had just recently started dating again on the website. POF — Plenty of Fish. I was on POF. I was talking to a few people here and there, and then I clicked on his profile because I liked his picture.

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I liked the tattoos. He looked like a bigger guy. Short, dark hair, with nice-looking face.

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He had facial hair. He had nice eyes. And he had muscles on those tattooed arms. His profile said he was He said he lived in Detroit, and he was a widow. And he was looking for somebody for long-term. It said that he was from Chicago area. He said he was 50 — a little bit younger than me, so 51 maybe?

He messaged back. It was within a day, and he said thanks. And he asked my name, and we just went from there as far as texting back and forth on the website. I was like, hmm, a little bit leery.