Photo: Andrey Cherkasov, www.123rf.com
“The first time David* e-mailed me, I didn’t take much notice. It was late and I was tired after a long day at work. After being divorced, dating, but still single for the past 10 years, I was used to receiving online messages regularly from strangers.
“A few days later, I re-opened his message. Unlike the usual e-mails from suitors, David’s was different. For a start, he’d written a lot. He told me he was 45 – just a few years older than me – and originally from Chicago but lived in Singapore. He told me his Singaporean wife had passed away from cancer three years previously, but he was remaining in Asia for the sake of their 12-year-old child.
“I was immediately drawn to the fact that he was a ‘family man’, and as I have kids myself, I could relate to being a single parent. David was chatty and remarkably open, even telling me his home address.
“He also attached photos. Tall, fair-haired, tanned and masculine, he was attractive – and even more so in the photos that included him with his son.
“Being a veteran of online relationship sites, I’m not the type to get excited so quickly. I wanted to fall in love again one day, but I certainly wasn’t desperate. A week later, I dropped him a casual line saying it would be nice to be friends.
“David replied after a few hours saying he was flattered that I’d got in touch, and we exchanged numbers. When he called a few days later to invite me for coffee, his voice was friendly, charming and with a thick American drawl, but the timing wasn’t great so we agreed to meet another day.
“The next night he rang and we chatted for 20 minutes about our day, our children and our jobs. He told me he did contract work in shipping as an oil engineer on rigs in the middle of oceans. I joked that I didn’t have a clue about shipping!
First guy I could trust
“Over the next few weeks, a pattern emerged. David would invite me for coffee, but we always had to cancel, for example, because he’d given me little notice, or he’d suddenly been called to his son’s school. I was mindful to never ask him out – I didn’t want to appear too eager.
“Still, we talked every night on the phone, about cooking and movies – everything I said I liked, he also said he liked. He never invited himself over or mentioned anything sleazy, which was refreshing and made me like him more. He was starting to become the first guy I felt I could trust in years.
“After three weeks of phone chat, David announced he was going away for six weeks, travelling to Europe and China for work. I was disappointed as I felt we were getting closer, but I remained cool.
“He called me the moment he landed overseas and we stayed in constant contact while he was in Europe. I did suggest using Skype or Facetime, but he joked about how terrible he was with technology.
“When David reached China, his luck changed. The first night we spoke he sounded stressed. ‘My new wallet has been stolen,’ he said, upset. ‘I’ve spent the whole day searching for it. It contains my bank cards, money, my IC….’
“He’d filed a police report and informed his bank, but it would be seven days before his replacement cards arrived. Worst of all, he had to pay for a particular machine to continue his work there. The money to buy it had been deposited by his contractors into his bank account, but without his cards he couldn’t access it.
“I’m a generous person, and I’d never lost my bank cards before, so when he asked me to lend him a five-figure sum, I was hesitant, but mostly concerned for him.
“David suggested I wire the funds to the account of his hotel’s receptionist. I didn’t think this strange if he trusted her, so I was glad to help.
“I approached my close girlfriend for the money and begged her not to ask questions. I promised to pay her back in a week. Knowing me as an honest person, she did so without hesitation.
In something together
“The next day, David was flustered again. He’d bought the machine but it needed repairs that would cost another five-figure sum. He apologised again, but requested more money. An uncomfortable silence hung between us. I asked him why he couldn’t turn to friends but he said they didn’t have that kind of amount.
“‘What about your mother-in-law?’ I persisted.
“He admitted they didn’t get on.
“I started to feel uneasy and asked to see his police report and contract, which made him angry. He accused me of not having faith in him, but scanned them over anyway. Both appeared legitimate.
“I withdrew the money from a shared savings account I hold with my mother. I didn’t realise it at the time, but David’s misfortune was making me feel needed; we were in something ‘together’.
“Things grew worse – fast. His bank cards arrived but didn’t work, and the broken machine meant his job was delayed so he missed his flight back to Singapore. I couldn’t afford to lend him any more money so I borrowed some from a friend for David’s air ticket because I just wanted him back – although by now it was more about getting my money back quickly, than because I liked him.
Asking for more
“But David didn’t get on the plane, claiming the authorities wouldn’t let him leave the country without paying another exorbitant five-figure amount in tax for the job he’d been doing.
“I started to get angry and panicky. I couldn’t understand why his company or the American Embassy were not helping him, but he kept giving me complicated reasons that left me feeling confused and drained.
“Nothing he said was making sense, and I felt overwhelmed by what was happening. This time, a relative lent me the money for the tax with no questions asked, and I also bought David another air ticket.
“When David was refused exit from China again due to tax reasons, I felt outraged. Now, he needed over $20,000 to be released from the country. I didn’t tell anyone what was going on, and the situation started taking a toll on my health.
“Unable to sleep, eat or concentrate properly, I went to a private moneylender during my lunch break, who loaned me the cash with an interest rate of $1,000 a week.
“I also informed David that I’d be flying to China to pass him the money in person. I needed to see this man myself, and I needed to get him back to Singapore to repay me. My suggestion made him lose his temper, with him saying that he didn’t want to cause me more upheaval, so I wired the money and arranged to fly there personally the next day so we could at least return together.
“‘It’s an awesome gesture, Agnes, but you don’t have to do that,’ he said softly. ‘I’ve already put you through so much….’
The truth dawns
“When I arrived, he wasn’t at the airport to meet me. Half an hour later, my phone flashed up a Singapore number. David.
“‘When you said you were flying out to meet me, I didn’t believe you!’ he said, attempting to make light of the situation.
“But by now I was livid. I got on the first possible flight back to Singapore, and despite my endless calls, texts and e-mails, I never heard from David again.
“I quickly filed a police report but to no avail. In fact, I was told that although my situation was extreme, I was not the first to be scammed, and it’s a problem that’s on the rise in Singapore.
“The aftermath was tough. The first thing I did – which I should have done at the beginning – was visit the home address David had so easily given me in his very first e-mail. The security guards did not recognise his name, or the man in the photos I showed them. Neither was the school he claimed his son went to aware of such a child.
“I wrote David one final e-mail saying, ‘I have forgiven you for what you did to me. I feel sad because you have done the worst thing someone could do to another person. Use my money wisely, but please do not con another woman.’
“I tortured myself over what had been real, if anything. Was David the person in the photos? Did he live in Singapore? Who was the man “I had periods of anger because I’d been so stupid – I’ve never even been in debt before. I apologised to the friends I borrowed from, and am still paying some of them back. My cousin paid off my debts to the moneylender.
“I saw a therapist who helped me understand my actions and emotions through hypnotherapy. My mum remains unaware of the sum missing from our bank account.
“Altogether David stole more than $100,000 and I am still $80,000 in debt, so I’m selling my HDB flat to pay it off. Thankfully I own a second apartment, so my mother will move there with me.
“Everyone has been supportive, but they all ask the same question: Why did a smart, successful, switched-on woman let this happen? My conclusion is that I was lonely. I am busy, with a hectic job and social life, but in hindsight I was also missing that ‘special someone’.
“I liked the attention from David and the feeling of being wanted. I think many women feel frightened of being alone and some situations can take them over. Afterwards, they feel ashamed by their actions, but haven’t the strength to fight back.
“I’ve tried not to punish myself with self-hate. Thankfully, money is not as important to me as my health and happiness so I seek comfort in that. There is little point in being upset because what is done, is done. A year has passed and while I am more careful with men, I refuse to let what happened stop me from believing in love.”
*Names have been changed
Stay Scam Savvy
Tips from the National Crime Prevention Council
1. Be aware when befriending strangers online. Do not reveal personal information easily, and maintain control by asking questions about the other person.
2. Do not send money to people you don’t know well – even if they feel like your friend. Scammers may spend months building an online relationship with you before asking for cash.
3. Contact the Police immediately if you receive contact from someone claiming they are in financial trouble overseas and need you to urgently send funds. This is a very common ploy.
4. Inform the Police if anyone tries to extort money from you.
5. Get updated on the different scams in Singapore at www.scamalert.sg (everything from phishing to kidnap scams and more). According to the website, these scams can be done by both individuals and syndicates – it’s hard to tell which.