So, I’d just discovered I’d been targeted by a romance scammer, like so many millions of women and men around the world. Fresh from my marriage’s end, this was my baptism by fire in the online dating world. I’d already been catfished, and now I was about to find out why Richard from Botswana tried to con me.
If you’ve been following the past series of articles, you’ll have learned tricks of the romance scamming trade, which I researched long after the events in this tale. See part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, part 6 and part 7 of how it unfolded.
I’d just learned when and how the scam had begun, and how it had been done and by whom. He was not Richard – ‘Richard’ was a fiction. His pictures and videos had been stolen from social media. My heart was hollow and my head hurt. A part of me wasn’t surprised, but that was the jaded, mean girl who liked to laugh at my stupidity.
I was now messaging on What’s app with Zaka, in reality a black African Zimbabwean living in Gaborone. He was indeed thirty-two but instead of a three-year-old boy, he was part-time father to a two-year-old girl. Richard’s life story had been invented by two guys he’d met who’d invited him into their scam because his English was good and he’d been to university. One was an IT guy and he’d got the images and done the dodgy air tickets screenshot. He’d also dubbed Zaka’s voice onto the two videos that featured ‘Richard’. With the benefit of hindsight, I could see that the lip sync was not quite right. It had all begun with the fraudulent Oasis profile.
Slowly it began to sink in. Everything I thought I knew about Richard was a lie.
When I read back over the hundreds of screens that encapsulated our communication, I couldn’t see his face or hear his voice anymore. I couldn’t feel those emotions. When I watched the videos again all I felt was a wash of sadness, tinged with humiliation and loss.
Tears leaked out of my eyes as I lay on my bed and texted Zaka my questions. I was holding him to his word that he’d tell me everything – whatever the word of a cheat and a liar was worth.
“You say you came to care about me,” I said. “But you would have taken my money and never arrived here. Right up until the last minute you were sticking to your lines.”
“This is the first and last time I’ve done this, I promise you,” he pleaded. “I didn’t want to keep doing this but there were two other guys involved. I don’t know why I did this. I know I am ashamed about it. If it was me alone I would have stopped this before it got too far but the other guys pushed me to continue because they wanted something out of it.”
“I suppose scamming and hurting people is normal to you,” I accused.
“No its not normal to me…otherwise id not have made the effort to explain all this to you…im just a normal guy who got persuaded into something I wld never normally do. Its true i have come to care for you. I’m glad you didnt send the money. That was my only hope. They have now given up. They know no money is coming from you and my heart is at peace.
“And the video link up did work. I cld see u but u cldnt see me becoz I was blocking the webcam,” Zaka said. “My life is not terrible. Im not rich but its not terrible. There was no need for me to do this. I did it with a heavy heart.”
He reassured me that the others in the group had shown little interest in our messaging. They just wanted the money, but Zaka had discovered it was difficult to just come straight out and ask for it. He could sense my suspicion.
“I live alone except for when my daughter is there. Only some of the time they were with me but I really wanted it to be just you and me chatting…the real me.
“I didn’t think you wld give me the chance to explain myself…i thought you wld block me after i tell the truth,” he confided. “I developed feelings for you, and like I said, Im glad you didn’t take the bait. I am sorry. From the bottom of my heart, I really am.
“Why do u want to keep on chatting with me? After ive done this horrible thing to you?” he asked, seemingly incredulous.
“Well, it’s complicated,” I messaged back. “Yes I do like you. It’s not just the pretty boy but if it wasn’t for his pics I would never have started this. It’s my own stupid fault. I also want to understand what you did and why, so that I can deal with my own feelings of loss – or whatever this is. Make of that what you will.”
“I want u to know the real me and to understand me…the real me,” Zaka said. “I will send u pics whenever you want and videos with personal messages every day. You will learn that i am not a bad person…this mistake does not define me,” he said. “I still care for you deeply, I cant help but feel like this because Ive come to know u and understand u. The only difference now is that the person who scammed u actually fell in love with u.”
Zaka promised to delete his fake account on the dating app and to send me the unedited video footage; “you need closure,” he said.
The next day he explained that the IT guy wouldn’t release it. Zaka did reveal that the guy in the video was German. A few minutes later, Zaka sent me a link to an emotional power ballad about a guy who’d done a bad thing and regretted it: “I’ve found a reason to change – and the reason is you,” the singer belted out. It was a stark contrast to the intimate song ‘Richard’ had recorded for me late one night directly into the microphone of his mobile phone. “Can’t wait to meet you at the airrrrrrpooooort,” he’d crooned. He had a sweet, soulful voice and it had impressed me.
It’s interesting how we make excuses and compensate for little things that don’t quite add up.
Now all those inexplicable and tiny details had mounted up into a sizable collection. There was an unaccustomed silence after the hours of confession. The next morning Zaka told me that he missed me and asked what I was thinking. “I feel the loss of a fantasy and I feel empty right now,” I said.
After a pause he suggested, “Perhaps my presence is making it worse for you. I apologise for my actions and although I have developed real feelings for you it is clear that the man you wanted was Richard, not me. I think I have to say goodbye and wish u all the best in life.”
I agreed with Zaka and explained that I could never trust him and that any ‘friendship’ we might have had would always be tainted by the past. I begged him never to do this scam again. “If you miss me that is one small consequence among others. I already miss Richard. From now on I will only trust my intuition and senses. Farewell.”
I haven’t changed any names and I’ve repeated Richard/Zaka’s messages verbatim here so that you can see the type of language and texting he used. I think it says a lot about him and his background and I should have given more weight to that.
For several months, Zaka and I continued to chat online occasionally, after the scam was exposed. He shared several photos of himself and his daughter and I went as far as searching for affordable ways to get a parcel of books to her; I still couldn’t imagine growing up in a house without any! So much for Richard’s charity ‘Room to Read’!
Eventually, our conversation ran dry and Zaka shared with me that online, he had met a Filipino woman in Singapore. She was prepared to travel to Africa to be with him. He found it difficult to hear of my liaisons with other men. We wished each other well, for the second or third time, and parted ways.
Even now, I bear Zaka no ill will despite the way he lied to me and hurt me. I think this is because he came clean and really did give me the opportunity for ‘closure’. He didn’t need to tell me how it all worked and to apologise, but he did. It took me a long time before I could delete my last two pictures of the beautiful young German man I thought he was.
I read a fascinating report, The Psychology of the Online Dating Romance Scam, conducted over a year-long period by Professor Monica Whitty of the University of Leicester. She described the phenomenon of ‘hyper-personal’ relationships – the perfect name for what I’ve experienced several times with people online. Her report made it clear that Zaka’s scam was typical of a certain type, and that his eventual ‘coming clean’ was possibly a move to scam me a second time (‘a second wave’).
Though we’d joked about it (as I did accuse Zaka of exactly that and reiterated that I had no money and would never in a million years fall for that), it was certainly possible that his claims of remorse were hollow and as much part of the ‘act’ he played as the original scam. My intuition tells me not, but I’ll never know.
Whitty describes one scenario of a ‘second wave’ scam as, “The criminal might contact the victim and confess they had been scamming them, however, during that time they had fallen in love with the victim. They then proceed to request more money from the victim.”
The article claims that men had a higher probability of being scammed than women. “Individuals [regardless of gender] higher on romantic beliefs were more likely to be victims of the scam,” Whitty writes. She describes the pressure the scammer increases on the victims and the nature of the ‘hyper-intense’ relationships they carefully build.
After the scam was exposed, Zaka described being given not only the photos and videos, but also the scripts about what to say about each of them and when. This ‘sharing of his personal life’ was one technique he’d used to build intensity, along with the early declarations of developing strong feelings. Another technique I’d experienced was the constant contact from early in the morning to late at night. “The victims often stated that they felt closer to the fictitious relationship than any other previous relationship,” Whitty says.
The research also examined the emotional and psychological impact on the victims after the scam. Whitty states, “All participants were affected negatively by the scam. They suffered a range of emotions and effects, including shame, embarrassment, shock, anger, worry, stress, fear, depression, suicidal feelings and post-traumatic stress disorder. Some described the feeling of being mentally raped.” She continues, “None of the victims interviewed had appeared to fully recover from the crime. Techniques some were using to cope included writing down their thoughts, working on campaigns to raise awareness of the crime, and thinking positively about a new life.”
The best advice in this report mirrors my own experience:
Victims need to be told: If the person is not willing to meet them in the first month, move on to find someone who will! Never give anyone money!