You can be anyone you want online. For awhile.
Mike was born in Ohio, grew up in Germany, and lived most recently from North Dakota, though was deployed by the US Army when we met– or so I thought. We got along great– tons of chemistry, lots of laughter, and I adored his heart, the way he wanted to be a dad someday, the way we cared about the same things. He was simultaneously so gentle and so masculine. It felt like I found someone my soul understood.
And then there was an emergency. His military-issued PDA was being collected because of a compromise in communications, and I remember my fear and sadness being ratcheted up to an 11. As I cried, Mike promised to find a solution.
The solution? Purchase a phone and send it to him. He was going to request to come home for Christmas and he’d paid me back then.
If all your warning signs just went up, GOOD.
But it made me realize: I think we’re all so used to the obvious scams like “Dear Sir or Madam, I’m a foreign prince and I want to give you $5 million US dollars for safe-keeping” that we are surprised by the intricate and clever ways we can be played.
This was a slow con: make a girl fall hard for you, then introduce the idea of separation and let the panic cloud her judgment.
He had another con too, made to seem more legitimate due to the slow introduction. One day he mentioned his dream was to open a particular business (in fact, I asked the question!). Another day he mentioned the money he had set aside for this business endeavor and how he had some of the equipment on reserve for a certain sum. Yet another day, he introduced the idea that someone locally was selling the same equipment and he might check it out … then it was the equipment he needed … at a far better price than the stuff he had on hold … he would save all this money, and it was for our future, not just his, and he only needed a deposit … by Friday.
Again, the slow introduction of facts, the insistence the savings would benefit us both, and the frenzy of an impending deadline … I never thought I’d be so foolish.
I’m so grateful to my friend Ashley, who just said two words: “Jack … no.”
They snapped me out of it, thank God.
Then I started researching. My friend who was former military easily pointed out all the inaccuracies in his stories. A quick internet search showed there was no American military presence in the location he had listed. The continued requests for money started to make sense.
I was being catfished.
Catfishing is a term used to describe luring someone into a relationship via a fictional online persona.
I’d been catfished before– but I’d always caught them early on and called them out before blocking them. They were clumsy at it, and I was too smart to fall for foolish schemes. I’d actually felt a weird pride that I was able to sniff out fake identities online. Until I encountered someone so dang good at it.
Now who’s the fool?
Keep in mind that, during all this discovery, my heart was also hurting. I had begun to believe that Mike and I might have a future. Now I was learning Mike did not exist.
Some people might think this was a bad move, but a week or so later, I messaged “Mike” again. He jumped into another story, and I simply said, “Stop. I know.”
He didn’t argue. “Then why did you talk to me again?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I admitted. “Closure? I have so many questions.”
“You can ask,” he said.
Me: What’s your name?
Me: Where are you from?
Me: Did you target me because I’m a Christian?
Him: No, I am one too.
Me: Did you feel guilty?
Him: Every day.
Of course, I could not trust a single thing he said. But I wanted to believe these things– that he was a good man in a hard place, that he was truly sorry.
We developed a friendship, and through research, found a feasible career move for him– poultry farming, which is lucrative in Nigeria and has low start-up costs. He met with a local farmer and asked a hundred questions. I connected him to a field agent for Kiva (an amazing organization that does microloans), and he made a business plan to show them to request the overhead loan.
Wale’s phone has been turned off since mid-January, as he warned me would happen. I may never know what was true and what was fiction, even of his second story. I may never know if he was able to start his little poultry farm, or if he returned to the more lucrative but soul-stealing con of catfishing women. There are so many questions, and I know that once upon a time, he used to read my blog. (Wale, if you read this, I miss you, wish you nothing but joy, and would love an update, friend.)
Mike, of course, was just a phantom.
And how does a heart mend after loving a man who never existed?
Slowly. Surely. By letting new hopes fill the spaces that ghosts made.
6 Signs You’re Being Catfished
Kiva: Loans that Change Lives
10 Matches I Never (Ever) Expected
The Unique & Ambiguous Grief of Ghosting