We are living in the age of the scam. Catfishing, advanced video fakery, multilevel marketing, Instagram lifestyle gurus, the Fyre Festival, Dirty John, Trump Moscow, a pyramid scheme involving actual pyramids: scratch any news story these days, and fraud falls out. But what are these scammers really thinking? And what is it like to be one of their victims?
We talked to ten people who have been on many sides of the equation to find out what motivates scammers (and how they pulled it off, at least for a while), hear the stories of those whose lives were thrown off-balance by a con—and find out how some anti-scam vigilantes try to bring the liars down.
THE LITERARY HUSTLER’S FIRST VICTIM
Judy Reeves, 76 Former director of the Writing Center in San Diego, California The Scam Before she would go on to trick literary figures on both coasts as fabulous writer and host “Anna March,” the person then-known as “Delaney Anderson” ran a successful Southern California nonprofit into the ground. The alleged scam artist’s legal name is Nancy Kruse.
I had always wanted to be a different kind of writer. Not a commercial writer, not a journalist, but a writer’s writer. I’d had a business with my husband, writing marketing materials for alcoholism treatment centers and addiction centers. After my husband died, I left San Diego and traveled the world for a while.
When I got back from my travels, I decided to form a writing community with a partner. It was 1993. Our mission was to create a gathering place for writers and readers and people who wanted to learn to write. Our instructors were working writers. We split the fee with them 50/50.
The woman who was running the front desk for us, doing administrative work, embezzled some money by writing checks to herself. Then my partner left and moved to Colorado. So it was a dark time for the Writing Center when Delaney Anderson came into the picture.
At the time, some of us knew Delaney Anderson was a pseudonym and that her “real” name was Nancy Kruse. I think she told us this; it wasn’t a secret. That she used a pseudonym when she came to San Diego didn’t seem a big deal. Lots of people change their names when they change their lives.
Delaney probably saw one of our flyers, and she came into the center and we started talking. This was the summer of 1996, pretty much before the internet. I liked her so much. I loved her, even. She was just so bright and had all of these ideas. She worked hard for us and really put in the hours. I had a partner to work with again.
Employees thought they had insurance that had been paid for, but when one of the staff members needed medical care and he tried to use his insurance, he found out he didn’t have any.
She came on as a volunteer, so she wasn’t getting paid. No résumé was given, no résumé was asked for. When someone is volunteering and you’re just trying to keep things afloat, you don’t call to check background information.
She told a lot of stories, anecdotal stories. One story, which we all laughed at, was that her mother had worked for Jimmy Carter in the White House, and that she would iron pleats in Amy Carter’s little Catholic schoolgirl dress. We all thought that was pretty ridiculous.
Later on, Delaney took over as the executive director, and I was still doing programming. The organization moved from our location in the Gaslamp Quarter to Hillcrest. She said we could afford this new, bigger place, so we moved and started really bringing people in.
Delaney took us further than I had ever taken us, and some of the things that she did were so flamboyant. She did a fund-raiser for us, the Literary Lights Gala, and she brought Paris Review editor George Plimpton out here. God knows he was probably never paid the money that he was promised. She used people’s credit cards to pay for things. We did a literary tour of Europe and had an instructor take five or six people to all of these places.
In the summer of 1998, we got evicted. It turned out she hadn’t paid the rent. A volunteer found an eviction notice on the door early one morning and called me. I called an emergency board meeting, and we started discovering all of these things that had happened.
She had not been paying instructors for over two years. Employees thought they had insurance that had been paid for, but when one of the staff members needed medical care and he tried to use his insurance, he found out he didn’t have any. Their taxes had not been paid. Their withholding had not been paid. On so many levels, it was just so wrong, and so many people were hurt.
I tried to call Delaney to get her to come to this emergency board meeting. The next morning at dawn, there was a note on the screen door at my apartment: I resign. I don’t work for you anymore. We never heard from her again. We were devastated financially and also now had a terrible reputation, so we were forced to close our doors.
I don’t think she came in thinking, I’m going to scam these people, because we were at a low point in our organization. It’s not like you could come in and make a lot of money off this. She was a writer, and I think she was looking for a place where she could be a writer and be with a writing community. Like I said, I don’t think that she came with the intention of, I can get into that nonprofit organization and build it and take this money. How could she do that? We had nothing. We had a center, we had a mailing list, we had members and these volunteers, but there was no money.
To me, of course, it was about the betrayal of trust. That is the most painful part of it. You look at yourself as an individual and say: “You know, somehow or other, I allowed this to happen to me. I got taken advantage of. How could that be? How could I have been so stupid?” But then you’re vulnerable, you trust. What are you going to do in the world if you can’t trust? Here’s the thing I think I have learned: that if you have that little tickle in your throat, if you have that little bell going off, pay attention.
At the time, everybody trusted Delaney. But “Nancy Kruse,” whom she became again when she escaped San Diego, was, for me, another level of realization of what a scammer, con artist, and liar this person was. We liked her because she was so charming and clever.
You know, if she wrote fiction as well as she lied, then she should win awards. Imagine if she used her ability for good, you know? People like that, because they’re so damn believable, if they could believe in something good, they could change the world. Good people do it all the time. We had worked so hard to create this gathering place, this center for writers of all kinds, for the community. And it was destroyed for reasons I still can’t fathom and I still regret.
THE SCAM BAITER
Wayne May, 48 Founder of Scam Survivors, Swansea, Wales
The Scam A common online grift is to tell someone you have money for them, but your records show they’re dead. All they need to do to collect their riches is pay you a fee to fix the mistake.
I started off in 2005, just looking around on the internet one evening for something funny, when I stumbled into something called the scam-baiting community. I sat there and read through various forums and thought this was the most wonderful thing I’d ever seen.
I decided to join up, created an account on a forum, and started contacting scammers. At the time, you could go onto the forum and look at scam emails other people would post and reply to a scammer. So I did that.
I’m a huge comedy fan. I love comedy. And the comedic aspect of it was what caught me. When I call up a scammer, it’s almost like doing improv comedy. Instead of having the audience shout out suggestions, the scammer will say something, and you have to come up with something to take that in a funny direction.
And I thought I was rather good at it. Then people started contacting me directly, saying they’ve been scammed or a relative of theirs is being scammed: Would you be willing to bait that scammer? The purpose of the bait was usually to make sure that other people knew about the scam, or to prove to a person that they were being scammed. After six months to a year, my priorities changed from just messing with the scammers for fun to helping victims.
In 2012, me and one of my good friends created Scam Survivors. What we do is post up as much information as we can. Then we work with banking associations and website hosts to damage the scam as much as we can, by shutting down fake websites and freezing their assets.
The scammer gets sucked into my plight, because he doesn’t think that I would be lying to him.
There’s a scam called “Dead or Alive,” in which scammers claim that they’ve been told you’re dead, and they have money that is owed to you, supposedly, but it’s gonna go to somebody else now that you’re dead. If you’re not dead, then reply to let them know that you’re not dead. Then they ask for fees to supposedly send you this imaginary money that’s coming to you.
So I call one of these scammers up and say, “I’m not dead! Look, I’m obviously not dead. But thanks a bunch, because now my soon-to-be ex-wife is going to use that email in court as proof that I am dead, and she’s going to get all my money and all my assets.” The scammer gets sucked into my plight, because he doesn’t think that I would be lying to him. If I didn’t believe what he was saying, why would I reply to him? Why would I actually call him up?
During this conversation, Kari Anne, who is the other admin on the site, is pretending to be my wife. She’s actually thousands of miles away—we’re on a Skype conference call. She starts thanking the scammer, because now she’s going to get all my money. We start arguing; it gets worse and worse. The scammer is panicking because he doesn’t know what’s going on.
Then I tell him that I’m gonna get my gun. Now, there is no gun—we play this audio clip that another faker had made of Kari Anne screaming, going, “No, no! Oh, please!” I shoot my “wife” and the scammer immediately hangs up the phone. When we call him back, he's now convinced that I have shot my wife because of the email that he sent.
We tell him he's gonna get blamed for this—an “if I’m going down, you’re going down” kind of thing. He is obviously panicking and tells me that he’s going to call the authorities on me because I’ve killed my wife.
We keep him going for as long as we can, and then eventually I say, “I have to go, the police are knocking on my door.” I hang up on him. We then try to call him again, as the police officer. Because the plan now is that we’re gonna call him up and say, “This is the last number that was on the phone, can you tell me what was happening?”
And the phone doesn’t get answered. We try it for weeks. We keep on trying this phone number, and nobody ever answers the phone. We can’t get through. Now we know that anybody who’s had that email and tried to call that number won’t get through to anybody.
At the end of the day, these people are still scammers. I’ve done this for so long, I can’t be emotionally involved with them. I’ve talked to tens of thousands of scammers in my time. I would be a shivering wreck, rocking back and forth, if I let it get to me.
I try to be more trusting in my real life, because these people that I deal with—the scammers always lying to me, always pretending to be somebody else—always have that motive of getting money from me. I want to believe that everybody I deal with in real life is genuine. As a general rule, I like to believe that there are good people.
THE DISASTER SCAM VICTIM
Thomas Blaney, 60 Certified public accountant, Katonah, New York
The Scam In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, a number of disaster relief nonprofits, including Blaney’s, became the target of Russian scammers, who put up a fake donation page and collected money—supposedly on his organization’s behalf.
I’m a CPA. I’m a partner in an accounting firm called PKF O’Connor Davies. In the accounting world, it’s not that bigger is better, but we’re the firm that has the largest not-for-profit practice, probably, in the country. Basically, half of our practice is just for not-for-profit entities.
In the summer, I live in a community called Breezy Point, which is a blue-collar community in the borough of Queens, New York; it’s a little area that overlooks the harbor. As boats come into New York City, you pass by Breezy Point. A good number of the people who live in Breezy Point are cops, firemen, schoolteachers, nurses, a lot of law enforcement folks, FBI guys, ATF—jobs of that nature.
Six and a half years ago, we had a very bad hurricane called Superstorm Sandy, which was disastrous for the Breezy Point community. Everybody got hit hard: New Jersey, certain parts of New York. But Breezy Point is basically a co-op of about 2,800 families, and everyone except maybe 100 families was affected. Probably half of those people lost their houses. Unlike myself, many live there all year ‘round. There was a fire that also broke out during the hurricane, and it was one of the largest residential fires in New York City history. A lot of folks forget about that. I think about 30 houses burned down.
I had a summer bungalow. It was a four-bedroom, very small, 900-square-foot cottage, the second house in from the ocean. Superstorm Sandy came and crushed the house in front of me. My bungalow was moved six feet and came off its foundation. It was red-flagged by the city of New York; it had to be demolished. For me, it was just a summer place, but my best friends who live there all year—it was their entire house that they lost. It was terrible.
My buddy goes, “Oh, yeah, I saw two or three Russian names, collecting the money out of Florida.” I said, “Florida?”
There’s a board of directors for the co-op, and somebody said, you should start a not-for-profit out here to help these families that really are suffering. A disaster-relief organization. A 501(c)(3) not-for-profit was set up in record time. I got a call from the past chairman of the co-op. He said, “Can you be our treasurer?” I said, “Sure. We’ll make sure we set it up properly and the money goes to the families that really need it.”
One day, a buddy of mine says, “Oh! I sent you a donation.” And he goes, “It was funny, I saw the name like”—I forget what it was now, but basically it was a Russian name. And this is an Irish community. I would see Dennis, Brian, Shaun, Seamus. A couple of Italian people, one to two Jewish people, but there’s not really that many Russians who live here. Definitely not on my nonprofit board. He goes, “Oh, yeah, I saw two or three Russian names, collecting the money out of Florida.” I said, “Florida? Ah, it’s a scam.”
I went online and Googled “Breezy Point disaster relief” and saw somebody had thrown up a website. “Help out the community,” a picture of the American flag, a picture of a couple of cops and firemen, and it said to send your money to this entity. And as soon as I saw that, I called the New York State Attorney General’s Office. I happen to know people there from my line of work. They took it over from there, and they closed that down immediately. So I think, fortunately, there was very little money that went there before it was spotted. But, geez. I said that can’t happen to us—but it did happen to us.
You know, this is going to sound terrible, but because I’m a businessman, it did not affect my emotions. I think I have more hatred for these contractors who came in and scammed people who were trying to fix things up—folks who would come in and grab a deposit, and you never see them again, or they didn’t have the proper licenses. We had a tremendous amount of that at Breezy Point. These people, with the website, I never even saw. Who knows what part of the world they were in, setting up these websites.
THE DAUGHTER OF THE VICTIM
Natalia Megas, 22 Journalist living in Fairfax, Virginia
The Scam An older woman meets a man online who says he’s living in Europe, and they become romantically involved. All he needs is just a little bit of money to tide him over. Can she lend it to him?
My mom and I talk a lot. She didn’t initially tell me that she had gone onto this dating site. It was back in about October 2017 when she started. She’s 78 now, and the story started coming out slowly.
My whole life, my mom was constantly looking for love. Even when it didn’t work out with my dad and they separated. It wasn’t so much about getting attention; for her, it was really important to bond and just connect over conversation or shared values and ideas and activities.
She started getting a lot of responses, and then this guy contacted her, David Morris—which is not his real name. My mom ended up showing me all the emails between them. He would just shower her with compliments and talk about his life. There were so many similarities that the two of them had. I think the thing that really caught my attention was when she first told me that this guy had the same birthdate as my dad. I just thought, “Wow. Well, that’s a coincidence.” Especially since my mom is into astrology, it really resonated with her.
She told me she thought it was too good to be true, but there were just so many things that he was saying that enticed her. He would write these really long emails. Eventually, he said he would come out and visit her in Virginia, where she lives, but he never came.
He was supposed to be somewhere in Europe. He was an engineer. That’s what he said. He had a master’s degree. I realize now that all of the things he said were because he had done research on my mom. My mom had a Facebook page that was public, and if you went to it, you could kind of see the things that she admired and valued.
I think the biggest warning sign was the photograph. He would send her photographs because she sent photographs of herself. The first one looked pretty legit. In the second one, you could kind of tell that he took the headshot of the first photo and put it on the body of the second. I don’t remember why I asked my mom to see the photograph, but I remember looking at it and thinking there was something off, but I couldn’t tell. Then I shared it with my husband, who said, “It’s totally Photoshopped.”
That’s when I really started searching online to find out more about this guy. I did everything from searching the email that he provided to her to searching his phone number. There was a website that I found where both of those things appeared, and a woman had posted saying, “This is a fake profile.” The profile was on Match.com and another dating site.
When I first told my mom about my suspicions, she was very quiet, which is very unlike her because she is always very bubbly and talkative. I knew that she was just heartbroken.
For a week or two afterward, she wasn’t sure if it really was true. She kept on saying, “Well, what if this lady on the site misunderstood him? Maybe it isn’t fake. Maybe she’s fake.” That didn’t go on for too long.
Then my mom decided, for whatever reason, that she would not tell David what she knew. Instead, she would string him along to see where this would go. That’s my mom.
“Well, what if this lady on the site misunderstood him? Maybe it isn’t fake. Maybe she’s fake.”
Soon enough, David said to my mom, “I have some financial problems. I’m getting all this money from this reward that I just won, but can you lend me some money until then?” And at that point, luckily, my mom was alerted to the fact that this might be a scam.
She called the local police, thinking that not only could they help her, but maybe they could warn others. I found out later that the local police don’t know what to do with these kinds of stories, so they didn’t really follow up and there wasn’t much they could tell her.
My mom told me she was scared. She went from experiencing this loving, blooming relationship to heartbreak, and then to fear. My mom stopped corresponding with him for a couple of days. He insisted in emails that she call him. She just ignored it because the more you engage, the more they’ll just lure you back in, and he eventually just left the situation and she never heard back.
It was painful, because I really saw my mom happy during that time when she was corresponding with this David Morris. I could just tell in her voice when we would either meet in person or talk over the phone. Even if she had nothing to do during the day, it didn’t matter because she was looking forward to his email. He would consistently write to her every night.
I saw her go from complete euphoria to just being really depressed about it. She would talk about it, but there was this aspect that was embarrassing as well. She told me, “What did I really think? He’d never met me in person. How could he have fallen in love with me over the phone?” It made her feel stupid. My mom’s always been optimistic, and after this experience, she’s not so optimistic anymore. She’s also always been so naïve in her life, and she’s not as naïve anymore.
I just want to know what motivates these people. But maybe that’s the journalist in me, because since then I’ve read a lot about how these rackets are popping up in the Philippines, for instance. And you’ve got the guy who runs the place, and they will rent these offices and maybe have ten desks and ten people on the phone all day long, just doing this. I personally just want to know what motivates them. Why are they doing this? Are they that poor? Where are their morals?
THE NIGERIAN ROMANCE SCAMMER
Anonymous, 32 Freelance writer working in marketing, in Ibadan, Nigeria
The Scam Set up fake dating profiles, meet women online, and begin asking them for money for a variety of reasons—such as having been the victim of a robbery, or needing to leave the country.
I was born 32 years ago in Oyo State in Nigeria. I am the first-born of five children. It was a big struggle, a very big struggle. My mum worked on a poultry farm. We were always in and out of school because of a lack of money. But I can’t say that’s why I did what I did.
I got into scams in 2003, if I remember correctly. It was the “in” thing here, back then. If you weren’t doing it, you weren’t in vogue. Some of my friends were quite experienced guys who were in it way before me, and they were able to guide me on what to do.
I wanted to go to London Metropolitan University in the UK, and I felt I could maybe raise the money I needed—between £50,000 and £70,000 ($65,000–$92,000). I chose London Metropolitan University because it was near Arsenal Stadium, and I had friends at the Arsenal Football Club who could help me with an internship. I thought if I went, I could work there.
I started going to internet cafés with my friend and got help making some accounts from my “mentors.” They created accounts for me on sites like Match.com. I would find a random photo and use that, and then look at profiles of other people on the same website and model my own profile after them. You want to make the profiles as attractive as possible.
Once they accept flowers from you, it’s almost like you’re collecting their brains. They don’t think anymore.
For instance, if my audience was in California, I tried to read profiles there to see what they like. What are their hobbies? You’ll notice that people in California like going to the beach. So you want to mention that yeah, you also like the beach, so that you’re able to create something you have in common.
It’s better to wait for people to contact you of their own accord. Those are easier to get, because they like your picture or they like something about you. If you reach out to someone first, you want to read their profile. You want to see, Oh, do they have the pictures of their cars? Have they stated how much they make per month or per year? Because you don’t want to be with somebody who is poor.
I would talk to between five and ten people on Yahoo! Personals at a time, because you’re lying a lot. Talking to 12 people, that is too much. You might forget what you have told Jennifer and mistake Jennifer for Janet. No matter how good a liar you are, you make mistakes. Therefore, to avoid mistakes, you create a note pad for each person to keep everything straight.
Most people I talked to on the phone, especially the ladies. The men—I didn’t tend to talk to the men much on the phone, unless they insisted. But talking on the phone convinces them more. Women are desiring of attention, so they want to talk to you constantly. We talked about future plans, numbers of kids. Sometimes we discussed likes and dislikes. I had an excuse for the accent. Mostly, I told them I am actually originally from Poland but based in California.
When you have been in contact with somebody for two or three days, you take things further by going on one of those flower sites and buying flowers or a gift basket. Once they accept the flowers, it’s almost like you’re collecting their brains. They don't think anymore.
Then I try to fix an appointment with them. I tell them, “Oh, let’s meet since you’re not living far away from me.” And then the day you’re supposed to meet, you just give them a call or send them a flower again with a note in it. Tell them you’re sorry that you have a business meeting in Africa and you won’t be able to meet them. That you’re gonna make it up to them when you come back. Most times, they understand.
Three days later, you contact them again: you’re stuck in Africa, you need money, you forgot your credit card, you had a robbery incident, etc. And before you know it, they start sending you money, because they trust you. I had someone who sent me $3,000 through Western Union. Total, I made well over $70,000 in three years. You continue to talk to them until they have no more money to give.
The only mistake I made was when I was pretending to be a woman and one of the men I was talking to—he was from Alaska—figured me out. I had a cold and my voice was kind of thick. If I didn’t have a cold when I spoke to him on the phone, he would never have figured it out, because I know how to pretend. I know how to fake my voice to be like that of a woman.
I didn’t go to London; I was helping my family with the money. My family lived a very prudent life. I was not smoking, I was not drinking, I was not womanizing; I was trying to help my family and my siblings.
Eventually, I stopped when I found out that my friends were just ... they were not really friends. They were just betrayers, asking for kickbacks. And secondly, I fell in love with a girl who thought that it was just wrong—that you can’t put your happiness on somebody’s sadness. You can’t make somebody sad and be happy yourself.
I wish I could go back and rewrite history. Of course, it’s not possible. That will always be a part of my past.
THE COLLEGE EXAM HUSTLER
Rick Paulas, 37 Writer living in Oakland, California
The Scam Taking a test is a lot easier if—with the help of classmates—you can look at the test questions a few hours before actually having to turn it in.
In 2003, I was a senior in my spring semester of college at Michigan State. There was a group of us in an advertising class, and we needed to come up with an advertising campaign as our final exam—I think it was for Kraft Mac & Cheese.
There were five of us in the group, and we didn’t really know each other. But we were just sitting around one night trying to come up with this campaign when one of us mentioned, “Oh, I have this macroeconomics final coming up,” and then another person said, “Oh, shit, I do too.” We all realized that we were in the same macroeconomics class—it was one of these 1,000-person classes at the university, with multiple sections—and we would have the same final coming up.
One person said their final was at 3 p.m. that Friday, and another said, “Oh, I have the final at 10 a.m. that morning.” We realized the final had been split up into two sections. Maybe we could figure out a way to get that test beforehand.
The plan came together pretty quickly after that. A few of us would go into the big study hall that would have like 500 people or whatever, and we’d get the 10 a.m. test, fake taking it, and then as people were leaving, we would just leave with the test in our pocket and use it to study for the next few hours.
I think the rush of it was really the thing that made it worthwhile. Having to steel yourself was the reward, in a weird way.
One of us was stuck actually taking the test at 10:00 a.m., so he was going to be our inside man. When we entered the classroom, he sat down at the front of the auditorium, and me and this gal sat toward the back. There was a handful of TAs walking around giving tests to everybody. We both sat there and faked filling in answers. We waited it out until about an hour or so, when people started to go down to turn in their test.
At the front of the room the TAs were waiting, and when you turned in the test, they looked at your ID to make sure you were supposed to be taking the test at this time, and they’d scratch off your name. The professor was the only person who was looking out for cheaters. He was toward the front of the room at a desk, and he was barely paying attention.
When it was time for everyone to start turning in their tests, our inside man went to the teacher to distract him. Then me and the other woman used the opportunity to file out with the crowd that had finished the test. We each put the test in our pocket and just walked out. We had a car idling outside with the other two people. We hopped in and then drove to Kinko’s and made some copies.
During the hour when I was just sitting there, miming taking this test, every time a TA came by I would kind of shuffle in my seat to hide the fact that I was not writing any answers down. That was nerve-racking. And I had to steel myself to get up and leave with the test.
I think the rush of it was really the thing that made it worthwhile. Having to steel yourself was, I think, the reward, in a weird way. I ended up doing super well on the test because, well, I had the test beforehand. I think instead of getting a B+, I got an A instead. The payoff wasn’t huge—it was really about the thrill of exploiting the security flaw.
I think it probably would have been horrible if it had gone wrong, right? Then it would be like, well, this is the stupidest thing that we’ve ever done, because the payoff wasn’t very big. I’m still glad I did it.
THE ACCIDENTAL SCAMMER
Matt Alston, 35 Copywriter living in Brooklyn The Scam A car rental company with a few garages spread around New York City, and a one-man customer service operation that involved impersonating different levels of management.
I had just moved to New York with my partner, and I was looking for any job I was reasonably qualified for. After six weeks of just bar-backing, having no money, and watching my savings deplete, I reached out to an old high school friend who I knew lived here and asked him if he had a job. “I’m about to quit mine,” he said. “I can make sure that you have it next by recommending you.” Then he was like, “It’s a horrible job. If you need to pay your rent, you should do it for six weeks to get enough money for the next two months, but this job has put me in therapy. It’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to me.”
And of course I said, “Oh, great. I’ll take it.”
The business was a by-the-hour car rental. It operated out of a large loft in Chelsea. It was owned by a man and his wife, who was pregnant, and they fought a lot. It was ostensibly—if you looked it up online—the same size and value and accessibility as Zipcar. And it operated similarly to one of those businesses, in that you had your credit card or bank account on file, and you just had a little key fob that you went and scanned in the front of the car and it unlocked itself for you, and the keys were under the seat or something. You were responsible for driving it around and bringing it back. Where this company was different was that it didn’t have a gigantic fleet of thousands or tens of thousands of cars across the country—it had a few, in some garages around town.
What would happen a lot is that people would come down to Chelsea moments after signing up, thinking they could drive a car that day. They’d walk in and it was just me sitting at a desk, scrolling through the internet or putting someone on hold, and the couple fighting in the office with the door open. And I’d be like, “The cars are in Harlem, or Bay Ridge, or maybe there’s a few in SoHo or something, but it’s in a garage that’s 14 blocks away. Also, I can’t give you a key fob today.”
And they would storm out, upset.
People would come down to Chelsea moments after signing up, thinking they could drive a car that day. They’d walk in and it was just me sitting at a desk, scrolling through the internet.
The line between it being a scam and just being a horrible business is blurry. The customer-service apparatus of the entire company, it was just me. So if you couldn’t get into your car and you called me and I was on the phone with someone else, nothing would happen, or I would put the other person on hold and pick up and talk and then help you. But there was nothing I could do to help a person who was stranded. The official company policy if you had a flat was to wave down a cab driver and offer them 10 or 20 bucks to change your flat, and then we’d credit your account. Obviously, no one ever did that, and I’m positive we wouldn’t have reimbursed them.
If someone called and had a monster complaint like the car had actually failed, or they had walked really far to a garage and the car they wanted wasn’t there, I was told that the best way to handle this problem was to tell them you were going to go get your manager, put them on hold for a second, and pick up in a higher- or lower-pitched voice. And just start over from scratch.
I never changed my voice, but I definitely was like, “I’ll go get someone who can help you,” and then just picked it back up and acted like I didn’t know what was going on. It works—people don’t know who they’re talking to.
It was extremely easy for me to rationalize a lot of this, because I knew that I was leaving the second I had something else to do. But my absolute final straw was when the owner hinted that we shouldn’t give accounts to people with certain types of names. It amounted to racial profiling.
I didn’t even make the two months’ rent I wanted to. I hope that guy didn’t make any money. I hope he didn’t walk away unscathed. I think he probably did, though.
When I quit, I wrote, “I quit—Matt Alston” on a sheet of paper and put it in an envelope and threw it onto his desk and ran out. I sprinted into the street, like it was the last episode of a TV show.
THE CATFISH IN LOVE
Aris Apostolopoulos, 29 Freelance writer and journalist based in London
The Scam Catfished a friend he was in love with using an online profile of a woman.
I was a gay man in the closet, growing up in a place where being gay was not that great. At the time I was in Greece, a place that was—I don’t want to say homophobic, but it was. Still is. And I fell in love with my best friend—my best male friend. We were pretty close, but we were not as close as I wanted us to be. So I created an online profile on Hi5. As a girl.
The name I used was Demitria, the innocent goddess of agriculture and nature. I had downloaded some photos of a girl online, and I Photoshopped them. She was a brunette girl, pretty short. She was just like Scarlett Johansson but a little bit darker, because I knew that my best friend liked Scarlett Johansson.
Before sending him a request, I had to fill in Demitria’s profile so it didn’t look fake. It was a full-time job. I posted YouTube videos and quizzes, which were pretty huge back then. I shared articles, and I made sure that these articles didn’t reflect my own interests, but hers. I wanted Demitria to be completely different from what I was. I tried to make her as girly as possible. I monitored what my female schoolmates used to post, and I would mimic their profiles. I posted songs, the songs that Europe listened to back then in 2003. “Crazy in Love” was really big then. I became a fan of Beyoncé through Demitria. And of course, there was always Britney Spears, because I cannot hide my gay nature. Everyone acts straight until a Britney song drops.
So I got away with it. But at the same time, I wanted to come clean, to say everything because it was a burden.
And the moment I sent the friend request, it all began. It was like a train. I cannot express it. I cannot explain. You get this feeling of power, this feeling of control—that you can do anything, to be honest. My friend accepted the request and we started talking … and talking, and talking, mostly on MSN Messenger. I felt like I was on cloud nine.
I had a notebook because I couldn’t remember what I had said. So I had my notes. It was like Demitria’s journal: Today I talked with him, and he told me that he wants to meet with me. I told him that I was miles away.
This was the point when I realized that I would have to stop, because I had developed a different personality. This personality affected my real personality. At some point, Demitria took over Aris. I was thinking more like Demitria and less like Aris.
I found an online community, a catfish online community. At first we started like, “Look, I catfish.” And it was like, “Come on in.” Some people made fun of their victims. But eventually we started communicating about why we were catfishing people. And this is how I stopped feeling alone. This catfish group was the group that helped me stop catfishing—it’s weird, isn’t it?
Eventually, I told my friend. I was so young, and looking back, I am really proud of myself that I did. We met, and I told him. And he was shocked, but at the same time, he laughed because he thought that it was just a joke.
So I got away with it. But at the same time, I wanted to come clean, to say everything because it was a burden. I told him, “I’m in love with you,” and that was when all hell broke loose. He was shocked. He was trying to play cool, but he couldn’t. I cried. I cried a lot. And I deleted my profile, and that was the end of Demitria. I always knew that we would never end up together. I knew that. But I just wanted to have this fake feeling of being loved by the person I was in love with. Being a catfish doesn’t mean that you don’t have a heart.
THE ROMANCE SCAM, WITH A TWIST
Donna Andersen, 62 Founder of Lovefraud.com, living in Atlantic City, New Jersey
The Scam Met and married a man who claimed to be a successful businessman. He then began asking for money, up to $250,000, to invest in his various companies.
I met my ex-husband, James, online, although he lived not far from me, about half an hour away. This was back in 1996. He was originally from Australia but was living in my area of New Jersey. He presented himself as a successful entrepreneur with a history in Hollywood and great business plans; he said that I was not only the woman he had been looking for all his life, but also a great partner in his business. He poured it on really thick, and I fell for it.
I owned a copywriting business. I was 40 years old and had never been married, so I was feeling like I really wanted to find a partner. James presented himself as exactly the type of man I wanted: successful, charismatic, intelligent, and an entrepreneur as well. We corresponded online for three or four weeks and then met in person. Within a week of us meeting in person, he proposed, and we got married a few months later in 1996. At the time I was swept off my feet, and I thought he was so in love with me that he knew he wanted to be married. I knew of people who found love at first sight. I thought it had happened to me.
No one discouraged me. They knew that I wanted to be married and have a partner. Everyone assumed that I knew what I was doing; I only learned after the fact that people were talking among themselves, but no one said that to me before the marriage.
James moved fast on everything. Within a few weeks of his proposal to me, he asked ... well, how did he put it? He “offered me the opportunity” to invest in his businesses, telling me that it was sure to make a lot of money. It would be good for my portfolio, and if I just gave him $5,000, it would give me a certain percentage of the business. He made it sound like I couldn’t lose.
At the time I was swept off my feet, and I thought he was so in love with me that he knew he wanted to be married. I knew of people who found love at first sight. I thought it had happened to me.
He never presented it as money for himself. He always wanted me to contribute and help pay the expenses to get these businesses going, so the way it appeared to me was that his business plans weren’t working out. Even as upset as I was about the money, and the debt that I was going into, I would say to myself, What kind of wife leaves her husband because his business plans aren’t working out?
He had three different opportunities that he was pursuing here in Atlantic City. One of them was developing a television station for south Jersey. He was also talking about an electronic theme park for adults here on the Atlantic City boardwalk, and also he wanted to establish a factory that manufactured synthetic decorative materials. The way he talked about this was that all three of these businesses would support one another and there would be a lot of synergy among them.
Not only was he taking money from me, but he was not responsive when I wanted to talk about it, and he would essentially tell me to just trust him. I would be totally upset about all the money and where it was going, and he just had no sympathy whatsoever.
It wasn’t until after I left him in 1999, after three years of marriage, that I found out about the other women. I called one of them when I realized what he’d been doing. I said, “I’m Donna Andersen. I’m James’s wife. I’d like to recommend you don’t give him any more money.” She told me, “It’s too late. I already gave him $92,000.”
There are warning signs that a relationship is essentially a scam—things like the other person’s charisma and charm, finding a sudden soul mate, the relationship moving quickly, their blaming other people for things, the pity play trying to make you feel sorry for them.
All of those signs were definitely there, but at the time I did not recognize what the signs meant, and neither do most people who get involved in these relationships. I mean, typically, once you learn what to look for, you can look back and say, “Oh, my gosh, everything was there.”
I became best friends with my husband’s mistress—one of them, at least—and the two of us worked together to try and figure out what this man was doing, and to do whatever we could to recover some of our money. But it was still devastating. I had figured out that he was cheating on me. But then to figure out that the whole thing was a scam? It’s just a body blow. It was awful.
I divorced James in 2000 and wanted to put my life back together and start dating again. I knew that I would never fall for this again. Some people who get in these situations are so traumatized that they can’t even think about another relationship, but I was able to move forward after working on my recovery.
I’m a journalist by training and I knew, when I got hit with a story like a Mack truck, that I had to write it. In 2001, I met a man and we started dating, and we got married in 2005. He had offered to fund my writing a book. I said, “Well, I definitely want to do the book, but first I have to do this website.” So he funded that, and the website lovefraud.com went live in 2005. I write about my experience with sociopaths and narcissists and offer webinars and consultations with clients, so they can recognize and recover from these relationships.
The main thing that I offer clients is validation. People are often so confused by what’s going on, that they just can’t make heads or tails of it. They feel like they’re being abused, although they may not really recognize it as abuse, because the person keeps proclaiming their love. So it’s like, “Well, how come this person loves me, but I feel so terrible?”
If you add up the official numbers of people diagnosed with these disorders—antisocial, narcissistic, borderline and histrionic and psychopathic—it ranges from 6 to 17 percent of the population. So if we say, on average, 12 percent of people are disordered, that means there are 30 million adult sociopaths in the United States. Nobody talks about it. The message we get from society is: “Everybody’s created equal and everybody just wants to be loved. We’re all God’s children.” Nobody tells us there are exceptions to this. There are 30 million human predators out there, and the rest of us are just sitting ducks.
THE WENDI DENG MURDOCH INFLUENCER SCAM
Henry Wu, 28, and Zornitsa Shahanska, 32 Editors and cofounders of This Life of Travel, based in San Francisco. The Scam Got a gig taking photos for “Wendi Deng Murdoch” in Jakarta, Indonesia. Somehow, the payments never come through, and more and more “permits” need to be paid upfront.
Henry: We are kind of like travel photographers. We do content creation for a lot of brands and tourism boards. We get emails from people all the time: they want to do a project, and they want to know if we are available, our rates, etc.
So when we got an email from someone claiming to be Wendi Deng Murdoch in November 2018, it wasn’t unheard of. The email was from email@example.com, and it had markings, like “This is confidential,” to make it look legit.
“Wendi” wrote that we were referred to her by Pilar Guzmán, the editor-in-chief of Condé Nast Traveler—we had recently done some photos for the magazine—and that she was looking for some up-and-coming photographers to do a photo exhibit about China for the Winter Olympics in Beijing in 2022. We thought, “Oh, OK. That’s cool.” So we arranged a call to discuss it.
Wendi connected us to her assistant, Aaron, who lives in New York. He had a thick New York accent and played the part really well. When he put us on with Wendi, she sounded like Michelle Yeoh from Crazy Rich Asians. She gave us a monologue about her childhood in China; it was very inspirational. She explained that the photo project would be about China’s influence in Southeast Asia, and she wanted us to document it.
Zory: They were looking at countries in Southeast Asia with large and historic Chinese communities. We had a couple of calls regarding this project while we were looking at the contract. Really lengthy calls; there was so much detail.
Henry: They were able to chat fluently about random things. Wendi would say, “So where are you from?” I’d respond, “Well, I’m from Texas, and my parents are from Taiwan.” And then she was like, “Oh, cool,” and we started talking about Taiwan. She knew a lot, so I thought, “Of course it’s Wendi Deng ... she’s probably been to Taiwan; she can talk fluently about things.”
We discussed the conversations with a bunch of our friends in San Francisco, and they said, “She’s probably kind of weird because she’s so rich. So if she acts erratically, that’s probably normal, because rich people are weird.” We figured that’s why she was calling us—because why would she be calling us? On the fifth call, she increased the pressure and said she needed us to go to Jakarta immediately.
Zory: Her sell was, “We need to finish this before the [Christmas] holidays because no one will be working.” This made sense, because we were also working with other brands and everyone was trying to finish everything before the holidays.
Henry: We negotiated the price up, and then we said, “Hey, can you prepay a certain percentage?” Wendi responded: “I’ve worked with famous photographers”—she mentioned some guy who shot for Vogue—“and they just dropped everything to work with me. Who do you think you are? Thanks for your time. Goodbye.” And we were just like, “Oh, crap.” So we said, “OK, sorry. Fine, we'll book [our own flights]. We won’t take the prepayment; we just want to do this project.” So we booked it.
Then Aaron, the assistant, called me the day of the flight. “By the way, sorry, we forgot to mention we’re going to need to get some photo permits to make sure everything’s legal,” he said. He told us we were going to have to pay it on the ground, from our own pockets. “Don’t worry,” he said. “It’ll all be reimbursed just like the plane tickets and everything else.”
Zory: We arrived in Jakarta, and there was a driver who was waiting for us at the airport with a sign and everything. Oh, OK, there is a driver, we thought. That's a good sign. It's not a complete lie. Because we were kind of joking to ourselves: Is it real? Isn’t it real?
Henry: We took pictures of the driver because we were paranoid. I said, “Oh, I just need a picture to add to my contact list.”
Zory: The driver took us to a four-star hotel, really comfortable. It was paid. We thought, The hotel is paid for us, so that’s OK. And the driver asked us for the permit money, which was about $1,000. We gave it to him, showered, and went to bed.
Henry: In the morning, we got a call from Wendi. She was freaking out. “I don’t know what happened, but the driver’s company, the logistics company, is claiming that you took a picture of him and that it was racist for you to do that,” she said. “They’re going to cancel the whole thing now. I’m just going to pull the plug on this because I don’t know what’s going on.”
We thought, What the heck is going on? “We'll just apologize to him,” I said. But she went on and on. And we kept apologizing. Finally, she said, “OK, fine. We can probably make this work. You just apologize to him, and I’ll tell my people to do something.” And then she said, “By the way, sorry, there’s another permit fee for the next city I forgot to mention.”
It sounds so scammy now. But it was slick, because we were on the defensive, apologizing. So we said, “Of course. Don’t worry about it.” Then we paid the new fee to the same driver and he took us out shooting.
Zory: The driver took us to all the locations on the schedule—it was a full day of shooting. The last location that we went to was this Chinese neighborhood in Jakarta. As we were working, I noticed this other guy, a German, also taking photos. There were no tourists in the area, and he had a lot of equipment. I was curious, so I approached him and said, “Tell me about the project you're working on.” He said, “Well, I’m doing this exhibit for the China Olympics.” And I was like, “Oh, really? With Wendi Murdoch?” And he said, “Yeah.” And I was like, “No way. We’re working on the same thing!” He was super confused. That was a huge, huge, huge red flag. We compared a lot of notes. It was his third or fourth day in Jakarta, and he was telling us about all the things that were going wrong.
Henry: They were driving him around to all the wrong places. By the second or third day, [according to the schedule] they were supposed to fly you to the next city on [Wendi’s] private jet. But there was no private jet. So if you got past day two, they just drove you around in circles. They drove him to the wrong airport. He was like, “What the hell?” And then they were like, “OK. We’re going to drive you to some random city in the middle of nowhere, and you photograph it.” We decided to keep in touch with the German photographer on WhatsApp.
Later, Aaron called us again and said we didn’t apologize to the driver. “We’re going to cancel the whole thing because you’re being racist,” he said. And I was just like, “I don’t know how an Asian person is racist to another Asian person by taking his picture. It makes no sense.”
Basically, their strategy was to flip out on us, have us apologize, and then if we did apologize, ask for another permit fee. But we weren’t going to apologize again. So we told him: “Let’s think about canceling this, because I don’t think we can do it.” We still weren’t sure it was a scam or not, actually. We were just thinking, “These people are psycho. We probably can't work with them.”
Aaron threatened us during this call. “You’re in Indonesia on a tourist visa,” he said. “You know how easy it would be for me to call immigration and say you’re there on a job illegally? Do you know what would happen to you?”
We then reached out to the German guy and told him what happened. “Yeah, I’m going to hop on a flight and leave,” he said. “Screw this.’”
Zory: Henry and I started thinking about leaving, too, but we were concerned about the contracts we signed. If we were to cancel ourselves, it would be tricky if the whole fiasco turned out to be real. So we tried to get Wendi to cancel it, which she eventually did.
The morning of the third day, Aaron called and said, “We decided to cancel the project. But because we are really nice people, we’re going to reimburse you for the flight. So please send us invoices.”
Then he asked, “So what are you going to do now? You guys have some extra time in Asia.” Looking back, I know why they did that. Because when I compared notes with other people who fell for the same scam, if they hadn’t realized that it was a fake project and stayed in Asia, Aaron would approach them in a couple of days or a week, like, “Oh, can you fly back [to Jakarta] and finish the project? We really like your work.” We met people who had returned to Jakarta three times before realizing that it was not a real thing.
Henry: We realized the scope of [the scam] when we later went to a photo shoot in Kuala Lumpur. We saw a bunch of other Instagram photographers there. I recognized one of them, Jordan, and we were chatting and he was like, “What brings you to Kuala Lumpur?” And I said, “I had a photo project in Jakarta.” And he said, “Oh, what kind of photo project?” And I was like, “You know, something for China.” I was kind of vague. Then he was like, “Oh, Wendi Murdoch?” I was like, “Oh, my God. You too?” That’s why he was there.
Zory: Jordan’s really big—his following is around 400,000 on Instagram. The scam targeted people with followings of all sizes and focused mostly on people who create on Instagram. [Henry has over 89,900 followers on Instagram, and Zory has over 91,700.] A lot of the photographers have worked with Condé Nast Traveler, too. I don’t know if they used that to search for their victims, but there are a lot of us who are connected to CN Traveler.
In the end, we gave the scammers about $1,800. Some other people paid three or four permits, or they went back. Our plane tickets ended up being about $4,500. So our total spend was around $7,000.
Henry: We have a rule now: we’re not going to accept people pressuring us. And if they don’t prepay for projects, that’s also a red flag. I overlooked a lot of stuff because they used Wendi Deng Murdoch’s name. I couldn’t find the lawyer in her contract, but I thought: “Oh, she’s rich, she’s somehow hiding it.” I couldn’t find the name of the assistant, but I thought, “Oh, she’s megarich. She’s hiding his name.” I did research on the domain wendimurdoch.com, but I overlooked the registration date, which was October 2018—so the domain was very recent. We overlooked most stuff because we thought she was just an eccentric billionaire, and that’s why the situation was so weird.