If I’d ever given internet scams a second thought it was because I believed you needed to be incredibly gullible to get involved in one. But as I discovered recently, there are some sophisticated scammers out there.
My story began with me chatting up some guys on a popular dating/hookup site. In addition to some rather exciting hookups I have had the pleasure of chatting with people from all over. While I don’t usually like younger men I was intrigued when a 22-year-old man sent me a “smile.”
His profile had an adorable photo and said he was in the Ukraine looking for American friends. Now I was even more intrigued, so I struck up a conversation with this man who identified himself as “Dmytro.”
He said he was an orphan (from prior to the war) and he really didn’t have anyone in the world he could trust or get close to. Dmytro informed me that he was putting plans in place to escape Ukraine and come to the U.S. He said he was excited to meet someone like me, adding that I might be the only friend he had at first when he came here.
As an aside, I am the epitome of the stereotypical “daddy” — not just in looks but in the nurturing nature of my personality. I will admit this “daddiness” went into full swing in my dealings with this young, apparently vulnerable and abandoned soul. I wanted to “protect” my new friend.
Dmytro’s description of where he lived checked out on a map. Mariupol is in the western part of Ukraine near the Polish border. He sent me pictures of where he lives and his emails of being awakened at night to the sound of air raid sirens and explosions were disturbing. I began to fear for his safety. He also sent me photos of his Ukrainian drivers’ license.
I specifically told Dmytro that I was a man of very modest means and I had no money to give him. At first, he told me that Ukraine has a program where they give orphans an apartment when they turn 21. He said the apartment would be his to do with as he pleased and that he planned on selling it immediately, giving give him $65-70,000 to come to the U.S.
That set my mind more at ease, but I was still being very cautious about potential scamming. It sounded like Dmytro was legitimate and was realistically considering the cost of his actions, putting mechanisms in place to cover them.
After more than a month of conversing, I told my therapist I was keeping both my checkbook and my heart close to my vest. As it turned out, I was more successful at protecting my checkbook than I was my heart.
Our emails eventually became daily rituals. I grew to look forward to hearing from my new friend and our correspondence was becoming more romantically inclined. Despite my internal warning systems going off like crazy I began to have feelings for him.
He fed on this and manipulated me into believing that despite our 40-year age difference there was a good chance that we could make it together as a couple. He flattered me. He told me that age didn’t matter to him and that he was sexually attracted to me. He shared details of his short and apparently uneventful sex life and encouraged me to share my past — both in and out of the bedroom — with him.
Adding to my trust in this young man was that he told me he had an engineering degree but was working as an appliance repairman. He said that the frequent surges and interruptions in their electricity were leading to all sorts of problems with appliances and other electrical tools. It all sounded very plausible.
After five months I had almost decided that this was not a scam. That Dmytro was real and that there might be some future happiness to be found in a partnership with him. Certainly if this was a scam the scammer wouldn’t invest so much time and energy in such a detailed back story, right? If I was a “mark,” then the perp was certainly taking his time for the eventual financial hit. In retrospect this was part of the web of deception being spun on me.
When it did come, the hit was unexpected and turned horrible in very short order. Dmytro told me that the government said he had to live in the apartment for at least two years before he could sell it unless he jumped through some administrative hoops that cost money. There it was. The ask was for at least $3,000 to cover that and some of his travel expenses. He also wanted me to buy him a car when he was in the U.S.
After I immediately rejected those requests, his emails became angry and harsh. He tried all sorts of emotional blackmail on me. The second he threatened to kill himself if I didn’t send the funds, I took my broken heart and blocked his email.
Scams may be short or they may take a long time to unravel. They may seem very real; the job of the scammer is to draw you in emotionally to get what they want. Dmytro was likely entirely fictional and the person I was chatting with might actually be several people who do this for a living in the basement of a warehouse in New Jersey.
I was lucky. While I feel stupid that I got mired in this, I’ve learned that scams come in all shapes and sizes. Most importantly, my pocketbook is intact even if my heart is broken. Be careful!
Greg Stemm is a longtime resident of Pinellas County and a founder of St Pete Pride. He is an outspoken activist on many issues, including HIV/AIDS education.