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When an Online Romance Scam Gets Too Thrilling

Is online love truly blind?

Emmanuelle Welch, a French-American private investigator in Brooklyn, NY, and secretary of the Society of Professional Investigators (SPI), relates the following:

I get contacted regularly by men and women (and the attorneys thereof) who have been on the receiving end of online dating scams. One case in particular gave me an intimate look inside the mindset of a victim.

Three years ago, a public defender in Texas reached out to me because he needed specific help from a French-speaking private investigator. His client, a Canadian senior citizen from Quebec (let’s call him Antoine), had been arrested at a busy Texas airport, in transit from Ecuador, carrying a false-bottom duffel bag hiding over 3 kilograms of cocaine. The man spoke little English, and acted baffled by these developments. He was charged with criminal possession with intent to distribute and faced a maximum of life in prison.

Yet the retiree’s attorney believed that he was an unwitting drug mule who had been manipulated by a paramour he met online. I was appointed to help gather information and evidence from interviews in Quebec and more than eight months of French-language chat messages, mostly over Skype, between the accused and “Josette,” the woman (or “woman”) who had lured the never-married small-town former newspaper carrier into conducting a bag swap with drug dealers in Central America.

Josette, whom Antoine believed to be a 35-year-old Francophone Canadian living in Africa, had come into his life like an unexpected gift. It appeared that she had cold-contacted Antoine on Skype after finding videos of him on Facebook wearing a hat and belting out romantic French songs. Day after day, she’d ask him what he had for lunch, what he was doing (not much, it turns out) all the while building anticipation for their future life together, however unlikely on the surface.

As is often the case in these scams, Antoine had never met Josette, who claimed to be stuck in Africa with bad Wi-Fi trying to sell a profitable family business. All he had was a photo of a pretty strawberry blonde with a shy smile. In fact, a reverse-image search revealed the picture to be that of a Russian escort.

The surprising thing to me was that … Antoine was fine with this set-up. Despite a plethora of video-chat apps to choose from (including on Skype!), con artists manage to avoid them, pretending to be in remote locales (working on an oil platform, embedded with the military, etc.). Their online targets can actually find such mystery advantageous and maybe even pleasurable—they might feel insecure about showing themselves, and want to “hook” their lover through words first. They enjoy the way they seem to communicate more openly when they cannot see each other face-to-face. They want the magic to last as long as it can.

In the case of Antoine, what became clear after a few hours of combing through chat logs was that he had become as intoxicated with the sense of adventure as he had with Josette herself. In that way, she was no different from other scam artists who concoct novel-worthy stories involving inheritances, hidden treasures, last-minute travels, with casts of international doctors, lawyers, and wealth management advisors, yet also Kafkaesque bureaucracies that only the target of the scam can fend off, turning him (or her) into a hero.

It wasn’t until working on this case that I realized how much all that common-sense-defying craziness could actually turn the victim on. Bluntly said, Josette was the most exciting thing that had ever happened to Antoine. His relatives told me that he had rarely ventured out of his hometown and was very naïve about the world. Josette and her supporting cast of characters who had e-mailed Antoine and befriended him on Facebook had spent months grooming him into going on an international mission. The destination country kept changing—India, Thailand, Ecuador…Antoine’s family warned him against going. “He thought he had become TinTin,” a relative told me, in reference to the swashbuckling European comic book hero.

Back in Texas, Antoine’s public defender had a lot of evidence to work with, and eventually won: The case was dismissed. After nearly two months in jail, Antoine could go back to Canada and try to rebuild his life.

A few months later, I called his relatives for an update. “He’s back in touch with the person claiming to be Josette,” they told me. They were upset and incredulous. Antoine was sending her money again, and the long-distance couple were discussing their future life together upon her getting out of Africa.

So I called Antoine’s cell, listened to his side of the story, and simply asked him: “Why?!” His answer was very calm: “Because we’re in love!” Antoine owned his fantasy and was willing to keep his end of the transaction going for his own gratification. He sounded to me like he didn’t want to let anyone spoil the best thing that had ever happened to him.