Modern Mating

When Technology and the Sexes Collide

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Keeping ahead of the con artists

Physical proximity – known to social scientists as propinquity – was always one of the most important factors in mate selection. After all, you had to first meet your potential mate before you could consider dating them. The Internet, with the proliferation of chat and dating sites, makes location far less important. Relationships that begin on the Internet can arise between people in different cities, as Sue experienced, or even in different countries.

The same Nigerians who send us unsolicited emails in hyper-formal language where we are offered the opportunity to earn millions of dollars, but only if we invest a “small” amount up front, have turned to lonely hearts scams to augment their revenue streams.

Theresa Smalley was a victim of such a scam. While trying online dating, she received an email from a man who claimed to be an American working out of the country on a construction job. They connected, and wrote each other often. One month into their relationship, on Valentine’s Day, she even received a box of chocolates, a teddy bear and a helium balloon that said “I love you.” Though Theresa had never met her paramour – he promised to visit her when he returned to the US from his job site in Africa, though no trip had yet occurred – she had become smitten.

The relationship progressed over several months, with the emails increasing in frequency and emotional intensity. Then, a problem arose where her friend was unable to cash the money orders that his employer had given as payment. Theresa cashed two $900 money orders and then wired her friend the money. Theresa’s bank later got in touch with her when it discovered that the money orders had been doctored. They had been purchased for $20, but had been modified to read $900. Theresa was on the hook for the amounts she had received when cashing the money orders.

This kind of scheme is elaborate and time-consuming as it requires cultivating a level of trust and compatibility. Fortunately, due to the investment required by the scam-artists, it remains uncommon. Unfortunately, it is a growth area. There is even a site – StraightShooter.net – where there is a database of sweetheart con artists where anyone who has been swindled can input information like names, email addresses, physical descriptions. If there have been other complaints about a particular swindler, the information is shared among any victims to try to shut down the con-artist by demonstrating a pattern of fraud.

Sweetheart scams have been around forever, and the scams will continue to evolve in tandem with the technologies that enable strangers to become friends. Fortunately, the Internet now provides a central forum where isolated and embarrassed victims may speak up and help others. Predators should be on notice.