Gone are the days of innocent love online. The online-dating trend is as strong as ever, but even stronger is the caution practised by singles who have looked for love and instead found scams.
Even this smartypants, who writes a column called Miss Lonelyhearts every day in this newspaper, got lured right to the edge of a big mess. When the demand for money came, I was as surprised as any other wide-mouthed bass on a certain dating site.
Experts surmise as many as one in 10 men on certain personal sites are scammers who jump on and off as soon as they have lured someone into their nets.
The largest portion of organized scam artists appear to originate out of West Africa, notably Nigeria. And, there are other pods operating out of American cities, too. They are often looking to hook women who are turned on by brave and handsome military men.
My learning experience was a West African scam. These operate out of places such as Lagos, Nigeria, where one of the languages is English, though spoken with an accent that's unusual to Canadian ears.
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Want to hear stories from Winnipeggers who got involved with online romance scammers? They are embarrassed, humiliated and angry.
These women were lucky. Stories all over the Internet report people who have lost as much as $100,000 or more. These Winnipeg women lost their hearts, a great deal of time and their good sense for a while, but not their life savings.
They spoke on condition their real names and photos not be used:
JANE: "He could make me melt," Jane says of an online beloved, after months of sweet words, romance, promises of love and talk of getting together forever.
"He said he was 46. I was 51," said the divorcée, who thought she knew a lot about relationships. "I had been married 23 years."
But then there was that melt factor that softened her heart and brain. Predictably, her romance scammer asked her for money -- thousands of dollars to help him out of an emergency.
"I don't have money. I'm in debt,'" she explains. "My husband didn't pay child support.
"I don't have $200 for you!" she recalls saying. Silence on the other end of the phone line.
"OK, goodbye," he finally said, and months of romance swirled down the drain.
Jane says, "I think I might have done it to him -- pushing him away like that -- for a reason. I wanted to know somebody, anybody, who knew him, siblings who went to school with him, but there was never anything.
"No, he was not really the love of my life," she says with disappointment and hurt pride. "But he was the one who broke my heart."
She adds, "I had another guy I didn't meet in two months, a guy who said he was from Lac du Bonnet. He wanted me to buy him a Caterpillar, as God is my witness."
Jane said it may turn out to be her last try at online love, but she doesn't sound convinced. High romance, not offered by many real-life Canadian guys, becomes addictive.
"Well, actually, I met another guy recently. We'll see if he's real; he works in the oil industry. I talk to him three to four times a day. He says he's going to High River (Alta.), and on his break in April he's coming to Winnipeg. We'll see if he does.
GISELLE: "I heard from a guy who said he was from Calgary. He sent a picture of him and his eight-year-old son -- actually, many pictures. His wife died in a car accident. He said none of the family talks to him. He had no accent, although he kind of sounded like a Texan, said he did contracting as an engineer, travels the world and builds buildings.
"Then he went to the Philippines with his son for some reason, but they didn't give him his paycheque for accommodations and the flight back. He said his son is crying to come back, and that they need money. It was about three to four months for that one. He phoned and talked and tried to get to know me.
"They sweep you off your feet, you know. He was saying things like, 'Your picture shows you are beautiful!' Later he says he loves me, thinks and dreams about me and trusts me.
"It went on for four months. We stopped talking when he pushed the money thing. Then suddenly he was very uncomfortable because I didn't respond to the money. But how can you trust somebody you don't really know?"
INGY: "I've met four or five now. They string you along for three or four months -- guys in the army, men in Africa and Iran. They act like they really like you, they'd like to meet you. One guy said he'd bought a house here, even gave me the address to Google and look it up."
The pattern is to talk to you a lot, listen to you, start to share and start confiding, she says.
Then it's, 'I want you to send you something, give me your address. I need to send it to you and I trust you. I want to get something big out of the country and don't want to bring it with me.'"
Ingy felt herself resisting. "Suddenly I didn't feel comfortable with the push, push, push."
Say no, and the relationship is finished as quickly as it started. But some will admit that while they were being courted, they never felt so beautiful and admired.
What are the worst online romance scams that have happened to a 'friend'? (Not you, naturally.) Join the conversation in the comments below.