‘My Romances’, by Sofija Stefanovic

Image courtesy Penguin Australia.

There is something thrilling about assuming a fake identity and running with it. In this case, the people I’m talking to are also assuming a fake identity, though they don’t know that I am. I feel like a double agent, or like someone deep in a weird offshoot of Dungeons & Dragons. I try to imagine the real people who are posing as my middle-aged crushes. It makes it easier to distinguish them from each other, as I flit between many chat boxes at once. When I begin talking to Jose, I imagine him as a slick Eastern European – a stereotype from an Emir Kusturica film, smoking while typing his flattering chat.

Hello there

How are you and how is life

I am Jose by name

Hello Jose

You are only 55 I am a bit older than you, is that a problem?

To me age cant give me happiness Love is above Age, tribe colour or race

What matter most is been sincere and honest

I couldn’t agree more

Why

Because I believe in sincerity and honesty as well

Wow but then i didnt see you are 61 …

You look 25 years lolz

Why thank you

You look very attractive as well

Wow thanks for the compliment I see you have a big heart

I guess you have an email address mine is jbetran68920@gmail.com

Because scammers frequently get reported and deleted by dating sites, they try to get targets off the dating site and into a private email, chat or phone situation as soon as possible. I set up a fake email address. Each time one of my admirers suggests going off the dating site, I assume he is a scammer and I refer him to my address. I picture my next beau, Johnson Bakers, as a distracted young man in a West African internet cafe. Because he keeps repeating himself, I imagine he’s pasting chats into my box, as well as many others, as he multitasks.

You are pretty

And have a lovely smile You are pretty too

Thanks very much!

I am a lot older than you though

Well age is just a number

As I chat to Jose and Johnson, Enes approaches. Because of his strange turn of phrase (and to distinguish him from the other stereotypes I’ve created), I picture him looking like Borat, from the film of the same name.

My name is Enes and am here questing for a serious relationship.

What do you look for in a relationship?

A very serious one that would lead into marriage

Do you live alone?

Yes, with four dogs. Do you like dogs?

Yes i do i used to have one. What is your occupation?

I am retired

What is your occupation?

Well i fix and repair car tracker

Is that gps?

Something like that.

What is your email address so i can send u a mail

On top of the chats, emails start coming from Jose, Johnson, Enes and more. I think Graeme would be unimpressed by Jose’s sloppy and fast moves (‘Dearest Angel, perfect love is rare indeed’ is how his first email begins, and his second email finishes with: ‘I don’t play games and I feel we are both matures and we don’t need to bit around the bush any more. It is quite obvious that we are looking for the same thing in a partner and here we are together. I feel it is the right time for me to quit my search and stay with you. I hope I am not getting too forward for you but I am saying my mind. I feel it is high time for me to love and be loved again. What do you feel about that?’)

I decide to dip my toe in the water and see if one of these people can be persuaded to talk about their job. Johnson’s been online for hours, so I figure he might be tired, and willing to talk frankly.

Hey Johnson. I need to be honest about something. Is that ok with you?

Yea it is

I love people who are honest And truthful

Well, I’m not 61 years old

Oh okay

So why did you lie to me

How old are you then?

I am actually 31 years old

So you dont have kids too?

No I don’t

Are you retired

No, I am not

I decide to come clean, and hopefully flatter Johnson into telling me the truth.

Also, I suspect you are a scammer.

I am a writer, writing about love scams on the internet and I’ve talked to a lot of scammers, but you seem really good.

I get no response, so I push on. In my experience, even the most hostile-seeming people often like being interviewed, as long as you approach them in a respectful way. I take a breath.

I was hoping you could talk to me about how you operate.

I can keep your identity secret.

I just want to hear about some of your experiences.

I am looking for someone GOOD to talk to, not just amateur scammers.

What are you saying?

I am just asking.

Why call me that

Please dont contact me again Goodbye

I am sorry if I hurt your feelings

You seem like an interesting guy though

And I’d love to hear from you

I would like to have some expert scammers sharing with me.

I will be respectful of your privacy and not tell anyone about this.

Please?

Johnson blocks me, so I can no longer contact him over messenger.

I go back to the dating site I first met him on to try and work on him from there. I notice he has taken steps to distance himself from me:

This member does not want to be contacted.

This member has deleted you from their contacts.

This member has hidden their profile.

So much for my fantasy.

Interestingly, six of my other contacts have also blocked me. I wonder if the scammer who identified as Johnsonbakers was also the identity behind these profiles, or if he warned other scammers about me (perhaps he was part of a syndicate).

I call the cops to give them an update.

‘Everyone’s blocking you?!’ Graeme asks brightly. ‘That’s funny in itself! You’ve been rejected by the scammers!’ As Graeme laughs heartily at the idea of me being rejected by scammers, I remember another time it happened.

When I was in Ethiopia, some kids offered to take me around a temple. One of them told me he loved playing football, but his team didn’t have a ball. He showed me an endearing hand-drawn poster asking for donations so his team could buy a ball. I gave him the money and he ran off, happy. Later in the day, his friend told me the same story, and showed me a similar poster. I realised it was a scam.

‘I gave your friend the money already.’

‘No, no, no.’ He tried to argue that he played for a different team, but I pointed out the team name on the poster was the same.

The kid started getting annoyed. He’d been hanging around for hours, wasting his time with me. ‘Why are you annoyed? You should be happy, you’ve got a ball to play with now!’ I said, meanly. Apparently, he was angrier than I was, because he pulled down his pants and furiously mooned me in front of his friends and all the other tourists. With this insult, he ran away crying. Afterwards, I thought about it. The kids had spent all day showing me around the temple. I hadn’t asked them to, but they insisted on hanging around, and they were, genuinely, helpful. This boy had, as far as he was concerned, put in a lot of work. He wanted to be paid for it. In the end his exposed butt was all he could think of to punish me with, for being a Westerner who greedily hung onto her money.

Scammers sometimes have to work pretty hard at their jobs. Lonely seniors can be a handful. Their emails require responses, they sit in front of their chat windows, expecting affection and attention.

I remember Bill told me about how, one time when he was being scammed, he took six weeks of convincing to send $120 over to Ghana. You can’t tell me the scammers who were trying to extract Bill’s money weren’t working for it.

If she really had set up an internet dating profile, my great-aunt might have liked Johnsonbakers. He was willing to talk to her and make her feel beautiful: who’s to say that’s wrong? And he could have got some money back in return. Instead, I’d wasted his time and he was angry about it.

I decide to keep plugging away. I know scammers come from a range of backgrounds, so I hope I’ll come across a lone operator who’s interested in talking.

I turn to my spam folder, where another love scam awaits.

Hello,

its my pleasure to email you.if you would be interested for aserious friendship hit me back with more details about yourself.i am 26years old, i live alone in senegal. i am working from home as a stylist. iwill tell you more when i hear from you. Have a fruitful day. Hugs and kisses. With Love,

Cindy

I respond to Cindy, asking her about her styling work, and she immediately writes back. She assumes I am a man, and at first she thinks I’m from india. She sends me some photos of herself, a pretty young Senegalese woman with hair tied back in a tight ponytail and a full build, leaning against a car. Her photos are more sweet than sexy. We start to chat and her responses come in a rainbow-coloured cursive font. She sends me an email declaring her love within a day. I bring this up over chat.

I am surprised you wrote such a romantic email, considering we hardly know each other

Yes honey, I use to have that problem, when i open my heart for a man and I begine to have deep feelinsg for hims that means I fall in love so quick when i meet someone that I like

do you have any pic to show me?

Well, I actually have a confession to make. I hope you won’t be angry with me.

no make your coinfessionmy dear am listening

Well, my confession is this: I am not a man,

I am a woman. I just wanted you to keep talking to me, so i pretended.

Are you angry?

are you serious??

Yes. I’m serious

Are you going to stop talking to me? I’m so sorry

can i see your picture??

No! I’m too embarrassed now!

No you are not, I should be the one mad here. but I am not. I have sent you mine pics and you know mealready. why cant you let me see your pic now that i am hungry to … ??

I scramble around looking for a photo. I choose one where I’m dressed as Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction: I’ve got a black wig on, so I’m hoping if Cindy image searches me she won’t come up with any matches. I want to see how she will react to my sudden switch from man to woman – I imagine there’s no template to cut and paste from in this situation.

Ok, you are very pretty.

thank you! so are you!

oh gush, and I have been talking to you, as though you were a man.so tell me, what do you seek for, Imean what you want from me?

I interpret this as Cindy feeling out the situation. She now knows I’m not an old guy answering an email from a stranger, so she’s trying to see what it is I’m actually after. I decide to be vague and leave it in her court.

I don’t know! I’m a bit confused. What do you want from me (considering I’m not a man, and you are looking for a man!)

We can just stop writing to each other?

stop no and, I want to know what you believe in. do you like men or women??

Both, I think! What about you?

Ok I was thinking and believeing in the way I was brought up, that a woman should like only a man. butI have come to realized that woman like womand and men same … since god has put you on my way, I know its notby mistake. I would love to try it with you. if you wouldnt mind

wow, this is all so sudden! I’m just not sure!

yes sudden I agree, but I know I never meet people by chance. I know you are a kind person

I am not hurtful and I will tell you everything you need to know about me if you open up your heart and share yours with me too

Okay! This is all happening very fast.

I think I need to think about this. I’m going to go to bed, and be in touch tomorrow, is that okay?

Yes thats OK with me, but do not walk away from me now, because I HAVE already given out my heart toyou

I will keep that in mind. Thank you for being so kind.

I decide to keep talking to Cindy. If I play a long game with her, maybe we can establish trust (in the best way two people lying to each other can) and she can give me a glimpse into her world. I start off by telling her that I’m not sure about having a relationship. She emails me back immediately:

Sweetie, you have said all that runs in my mind too, I have not had experience with a woman either but I am puzzled to met you, finding out you are a female like me and I have been falling deep in love with you.

My love, I know we both have something in common to share as lovers and I do not want to lose you. The feelings I have for you is true and will last for eternity as long as you accept me in your heart just as I have accepted you.

I love you. I Love every little thing about you.

Cindy goes on:

I love your Cute smile, your magical eyes, and the sound of your words.

I think about Bill, the moustachioed man at the support group, the lady with the wrinkled mouth who was disappointed at the airport, and wonder if they’d received the same sort of email. And even though I am fully aware that Cindy has cut and pasted this from somewhere, even though I have been told a thousand times by the police that scammers operate by stroking people’s egos, I cannot help but glance at the photo I sent Cindy to see if my eyes do, indeed, look magical.


This extract from Sofija Stefanovic’s new book, You’re Just Too Good to Be True, was originally published in The Lifted Brow #25. You’re Just Too Good to Be True is out now in print ($9.99) and ebook ($3.99) formats from Penguin Australia.

Sofija Stefanovic now lives in New York. She hosts the literary salon Women of Letters New York and writes the ‘Serbs and the City’ column for The Lifted Brow: Online. She tweets at @sstefanovic.