This past spring, my inboxes began filling with messages from heartbroken women. The first came through Instagram: “Hey, I am Lina. I live in Germany. Someone is using your pictures for scamming!”
Her profile revealed a woman who looked to be near my age, late 40s, wearing black-framed glasses. She told me she had met the guy on Tinder. But after a few months of exchanging messages, she grew suspicious of his motives, so her daughter image-searched his photos on Google, which led them to my profile.
“I felt a bit in love with you,” she said. “But now I know that you are gay. I thought I have some luck to meet a wonderful person from England.”
The fake me was “Simon,” an investment banker from outside of London. He had sent Lina photos of me and my dog, Agnes, whom he had called Pom Pom.
Some basic facts: I’m a single copywriter in western Massachusetts who finds the name Pom Pom embarrassing. Also, as Lina had correctly deduced, I’m gay.
“Everything was fake,” Lina wrote. “I only want to be happy — I think my day will come. Are you looking for a partner? It makes me sad that so good-looking a guy is not interested in women.”
The next week, I heard from a woman in Hungary: “I was fooled by your photos. He called himself Harvard, from Colorado. I thought you were the man. I fell in love.”
A woman in Santa Barbara: “Embarrassing, but I kinda became obsessed with ‘you.’ Not sure why I felt compelled to share this with you, except to maybe purge my obsession. I’m not looking for anything.”
Friends told me I should feel flattered that someone would consider me attractive enough to use as bait, but it felt gross that some version of me was preying upon the vulnerable.
This all started last spring, when virus fears, mounting unemployment and the loneliness of digital life combined to create a perfect environment for online romantic scams. These women didn’t strike me as being especially gullible; they were just looking for love from the confines of their homes like so many others.
I had been single for years following a divorce. A stranger glancing at my photos may have seen someone trying to look happy. But as one woman from Nebraska wrote, “You’ve got sad eyes.”
They were generous in letting me know about the scams, but their messages held complicated layers. For months, each woman had built something with this fake me, and in the wake of the scam’s collapse, the real me was all that was left to absorb their bitterness and provide what they hadn’t yet received — honesty.
It wasn’t hard for me to relate. Many years ago, when catfish was still just known as a fish, I was a 20-something man in San Francisco who fell for a fellow blogger many states away. Over two years, we grew closer and closer by email and phone, but every plan for us to meet in person always mysteriously fell through.
In the end, I was able to peel back the layers of his lies. He was not a museum curator in Pittsburgh; he lived in his parents’ basement in Dubuque. That experience devastated me but also helped me understand all too well how these women could fall for a stranger online, and how he could use their hope against them.
I told them I was sorry that someone using my photos had caused them so much pain. I risked causing them more pain by telling them they weren’t the only victims, but I figured they deserved the truth.
My photos were circulating all over, creating new personas: a Chicago stockbroker, an Oregon park ranger, a dog walker named Larry. I couldn’t stop it. I couldn’t even confront the impostor. Or could I?
As spring turned to summer, I kept thinking about one email from a woman who had shared the phone number the impostor had used to chat with her on WhatsApp. I recognized his area code as one from my hometown, Minneapolis, but phone numbers can be faked.
I decided I would text him.
This was no small act for me. I’ll do anything to avoid confrontation. But I needed to know.
I had a WhatsApp account, but I crept up to the guy — I assumed it was a guy — sideways, stripping my profile of photo and name and texting just one word: “Hi.”
A minute passed. The word hung like a baited hook. Then, a reply: “Who are you please?”
I had intended to scam the scammer — to pose as a lonely woman before eventually revealing my identity. But my motive was to dig for the truth, so I abruptly decided to come at him from the same place.
“When I tell you who I am,” I wrote, “don’t be afraid.” I sent him my photo.
He responded, simply: “LOL.”
“I think you know who I am now,” I wrote. “I’ll never ask you for your real name. And I can’t get you into trouble.”
It took several minutes of tense back and forth for him to believe my identity. (Yes, the irony.) He asked how I found him, and I told him how but not who. He kept asking which woman had revealed his number. I told him: “You’ve hurt them enough.”
“Well,” he wrote, “I’m actually sorry for using your pictures.”
“I appreciate that.”
“I only did this to get money for my poor family. Unfortunately, no one gave me money. I kept trying. But it’s kept failing.” When I pressed him, he said he first built a relationship and “made them love me.” After a few weeks, he would ask for money for hyperthyroid surgery: “Two thousand dollars. But nobody paid me.”
When I asked about the Minneapolis number, he said he lived in Brazil.
“Are you married?”
“Why do you ask?” he said. “I know you gay.”
“I guess I was wondering if you were lonely, too?”
He told me he had a girlfriend and a 2-year-old son, and that he had lost his cashier job when the pandemic hit. “We are safe,” he wrote. “But we are hungry.” He told me he had found my pictures on Instagram, liked my tattoos and figured I made a believable lure. “I hope you are not angry with me,” he said.
And I wasn’t, not really. But I couldn’t quite believe him, so I didn’t know where to hang my feelings.
Then he asked me the question I’d been dreading: “Can you help me?”
The man who had stolen my photos to scam lonely people was now asking me for money. So much of our willingness to help other people depends upon what we know of their lives. Without being able to confirm anything he said, could I believe his story? Of course not. Still, he had answered my questions. What was that worth?
I told him I barely made enough to get by. “It won’t be much. Maybe 25 dollars.”
“Can you send an iTunes card with it?”
“I thought you were hungry.”
“Yes, but 25 dollars is very small, my friend.”
Indeed, it is.
I learned he had tried to scam only one of the women who had contacted me, though he had a list of 10 others I knew nothing about. Which, if true, meant there was more than one impostor using my pictures, in more than one location.
“I won’t use your pics anymore,” he said.
I thanked him and closed the app. Our whole exchange reminded me of the blogger who had led me on for too long. Without facts, without trust, human connection fails. And what is trust on the internet except a suspension of disbelief?
I haven’t sent him money, but I keep thinking about his son, who I believe may exist. Maybe. I’ve always been more sucker than cynic, but in any case, my impostor and I may not be done with each other.
“So how is life in America?” he texted recently.
I may still respond. In the meantime, I’m learning to live with the discomfort of knowing my images are still being used in ways I can barely imagine.
I keep in touch with some of the women. We comment on each other’s Instagram posts and send occasional texts. “I hope you find the right man, too,” Lina told me recently.
Whether I do or not, human connection during a pandemic may be worth the heartache, however it finds me.
I try not to obsess over all the things my stand-ins are saying on the internet to other lonely people, but it seems they’ve been busy. If you find yourself messaging with one, I hope he tells you you’re beautiful, and that you believe it, even if you don’t believe him. It’s important, I’ve learned, to peel back the lies until you can see the truth.