This past spring, my inboxes began filling with messages from heartbroken women. I live in Germany.
Someone is using your pictures for scamming! 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, so her daughter image-searched his photos on Google, which led them to my profile.
I thought I have some luck to meet a wonderful person from England. He had sent Lina photos of me and my dog, Agnes, whom he had called Pom Pom. Are you looking for a partner?
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It makes me sad that so good-looking a guy is not interested in women. He called himself Harvard, from Colorado. I thought you were the man. I fell in love.
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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.
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.
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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. 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.
Or could I? As spring turned to summer, I kept thinking about one from a woman who had shared the phone the impostor had used to chat with her on WhatsApp. I recognized his area code as one from my hometown, Minneapolis, but phone s can be faked.
This was no small act for me.
But I needed to know. A minute passed. The word hung like a baited hook.
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. I kept trying. But nobody paid me. When I asked about the Minneapolishe said he lived in Brazil.
He told me he had a girlfriend and a 2-year-old son, and that he had lost his cashier job when the pandemic hit. 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. Still, he had answered my questions. What was that worth? I told him I barely made enough to get by.
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Maybe 25 dollars. I learned he had tried to scam only one of the women who had contacted me, though he had a list of 10 others I knew nothing about. Which, if true, 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.
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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, human connection during a pandemic may be worth the heartache, however it finds me. Michael McAllister works as a copywriter in western Massachusetts.
Modern Love can be reached at modernlove nytimes.
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