This is a story about love, but it is not a love story.
Anne – who asked that her real name not be used to protect her privacy -- met her husband when they were both in the Air Force. He worked at the firing range where she would train. She called and asked him to dinner. He said he’d been planning to ask her the same.
That’s how you met in those days, she says. There was no internet, no texting. Eventually, your paths just crossed. They were married for 31 years until he died of cancer four years ago.
Now Anne is 59. She lives in Bloomington, works in accounting, likes to knit and sew. She wanted to start a new life. In March, she set up her first dating profile on Match.com.
The next morning, she found a message -- some guy named Dave. He lived in Alexandria, and he was 69 years old. That was too old for her taste, so she was hesitant. Still, she wanted to see what he had to say.
The message was not from Dave. It was from a “friend” who was reaching out on his behalf. Dave had lost his wife some years ago, the message said. The friend was showing Dave the ropes of online dating, and Anne’s picture popped up. He gave her Dave’s email.
All that day, Anne thought about Dave. She was a little suspicious of online dating, and she wasn’t sure what to do. Eventually, she created a new email address and sent a quick hello.
For three days, the two emailed back and forth. He sent her a questionnaire about her life. What kind of car did she drive? How tall was she? If they were going to cook dinner together, what dish would it be? They exchanged photos. He sent her a song by the country band Lonestar.
Then they started calling and texting. He asked her if she believed in soul mates and love at first sight. She told him she did.
On day five, he said he had to catch a flight to New York, and that he’d be back in two days. Anne suggested they finally meet face-to-face. But when the day came, he told her he had to stay in New York longer. He’d been offered a big construction job, he said, remodeling an old refinery in South Africa. He had to zip off to Cape Town the next day.
Dave sent her a picture of his travel itinerary so she could track his flight. Later, she noticed the name had been cropped off.
After Dave was due to land in Cape Town, Anne got a call from a phone she didn’t recognize. It was Dave. He said his luggage had been stolen, along with his phone and laptop. He was using a kind stranger’s phone. To make matters worse, security detained him because of the amount of South African currency he was carrying for the construction project.
He needed a favor. He needed her to send him a new computer and phone. Anne refused at first, but he told her there was nothing else he could do. His money was tied up in the project, and he needed the equipment so he could work. All these opportunities were opening up, he said – right after meeting her.
Anne bought a $1,000 cellphone and a $1,500 laptop, shipping them both to South Africa for $450. Then Dave needed money for expenses -- software subscriptions and such -- so she bought $1,000 in iTunes gift cards. Then he asked for more -- in bitcoin, this time.
Friends begged her to stop, told her that it was all a trick. When she wouldn’t listen, her oldest son cut off communication, even blocked her on Facebook. It hurt, she said. But she wasn’t ready to give up on her relationship.
She was at a Wells Fargo branch, trying to wire $10,000 to Dave’s account, when the teller stopped her. The bank manager took her aside and told her the account she was sending the money to had been identified as a scam. They sent her to the police to file a report.
She still didn’t fully believe them, sitting there, telling a detective what happened. She’d lost almost $17,000 to a man she’d known five days and never seen. But she wanted to believe in Dave. By April, the police were telling her there was nothing they could do. “Dave” was likely overseas. Out of their jurisdiction.
In the meantime, Dave had been calling on and off. After the police had given up, she answered.
“I want my money back,” she said.
Dave assured her that he’d pay as soon as he was paid from his project. He started to make an excuse, and Anne stopped listening. That was the last time she talked to him. In May, she got a text from a random number that said “happy mother’s day.”
Anne is working on paying off her debts -- $400 a month for five years. Even buying a new pair of glasses is difficult now. She’s trying to sell her house so she can reduce her expenses and live with a relative.
She’s gotten a new account on eHarmony. Now, she insists on Skyping her dates or meeting them face-to-face. She hasn’t pursued anything serious. She’s staying focused on rebuilding everything she’s lost.
Her son, she says, is back in touch -- but there are hurt feelings on both sides.
It’s hard to look back and see all the red flags she missed. How he refused to video chat. How his name never appeared on the itinerary. How he was always asking for cash -- untraceable cash.
“I just chose not to heed those warnings,” she says.
Thousands of people every year don’t. The Federal Trade Commission says $220 million was lost to online romance scams in 2016 alone. Most are similar to Anne’s -- quick professions of love, excuses not to meet up, supposed emergencies prompting requests for money. It may seem ridiculous on the outside, but time and time again it works.
Anne says it won’t work anymore. Not on her.