Sunday, 11 March 2012

It can get worse?

There should be a word for it: when you become disillusioned with something, give it up, and then find the alternatives so god-awfully dreadful that you go back to the first thing again. Maybe there is. Maybe it's called despair.

I had not, of course, entirely deleted all of my online dating profiles, but I had ceased bothering to check my inbox for the odd missive from 56 year-old tattooed grandmothers, and hadn't run a profile search to check the latest batch of fresh meat in quite a while.

So, I don't know why I bothered to open the message I received from “Oksana918”, once the notification had been forwarded to my phone. Maybe it was something to do with the thumbnail photo, which showed a slim, willowy blonde with most of her face hidden by a bunch of flowers. Ok, who am I kidding? It was all about the photo – she looked seriously fit.

The message, and the profile behind it, was predictably brief. And, the grammar was even worse than the norm, which is saying something in the modern age of text-speak functional illiterates. Something about the phrasing screamed “Eastern Europe” at me, despite her home town being allegedly just up the road. Well, that was certainly possible – there were plenty of East European girls here nowadays, and maybe she was a lonely Latvian nanny stuck in some company director's spare room, with nothing to do once his kids were put to bed?

She wasn't a full member of the site, but asked if I would email her directly so we could chat further. So, what did I have to lose? I sent the mail, but kept it brief and cagey.

I didn't have long to wait for a response:

Hello, Ben. Thank you for writing to me.
My name is Ekaterina. I am 29 years old. But I look much younger than his years.
I have not used the Internet to explore before. I did not know about it. I told this to a colleague at work. He met a girl who is now his wife. I am so embarrassed to write to you. I do not trust the internet, but decided to write to you.
I'm lonely. I want to start a family. I'm looking for a spiritual friend. I'm looking for love.
I think we should tell the truth. If you are here, then you are alone. We are both looking for their second half. Do you agree? I trust people. I hope you will not deceive me.
I live in Russia. For me, the distance - it's not a problem. And for you? I want to know you. We all have a chance at life. We are building our future. I like you, and I want to communicate with you.
I'm sending my photo to you.
Tell me about yourself. Ekaterina

And there was the photo. No flowers in the way this time: she was facing the camera, hands behind her head and back slightly arched, in that classic glamour pose that pushed her pert breasts toward the lens. She was, absolutely, unquestionably, Kate Moss-a-like model-girl stunning.

Russia, eh? That home town up the road was a lie. Well, that was not a good sign. Modern Russia is perhaps second only to Nigeria as the spiritual home of the internet scam, and the odds of this knock-out babe being anything other than a lure to reel in the sad, desperate and lonely seemed slight indeed.

Was I really so sad, desperate and lonely as to fall for it? Well, I was intrigued, obviously. And so the process of self-justification began: “Obviously, this is a scam,” I told myself, “But it'll be interesting to play along for a while to find out what it is. Will she suddenly have a sick mother who needs money for an operation? Or will I have to wire her the cash to buy a plane ticket to come and see me?”

Really, of course, what was going on in the back of my mind was the desperate, desperate hope that, against all the odds, she somehow might just be genuine. A beautiful, sensitive girl, stuck in some backwoods Russian hell-hole and surrounded by woman-beating alcoholics, who dreams of a better life with a kind, attentive, slightly-less-alcoholic westerner. Obviously, she'd mainly be interested in the money and the visa, but was that really so different from the British women I'd had relationships with? Gold-digging users almost to a girl.

So, I replied, somewhat less cagily this time. A few details about myself, but nothing too specific. A couple of photo's that weren't already on my dating site profile. And I asked her about where in Russia she lived and what it was like.

Once again, I did not have to wait long for a reply:
Hi, Ben. Thank you for having responded to me. Very nice to get a letter from you. I am very interested to meet you.
Ben, I live in Russia in the city of Tyumen. My city is not very large. It is home to about 580,000 people. Located on the banks of the River Tour. Distance from Tyumen to Moscow in 1725 km. I am far from the capital of Russia.
I'll tell you about yourself. I am 29 years old. My height is 1.67 m I'm blond with big green eyes. I was not married and I have no children.
I am very pleased that the distance between the two countries does not bother you. The Internet allows us to communicate with each other.
If I am writing to you with errors, do not scold me. I teach English to their own and with a tutor for about 2 years. I like this language. Sometimes I look in the interpreter, if you do not know how to translate.
I graduated from university on a specialty "Management of the organization." I loved to learn. After my studies I worked as a manager in a commercial firm. I enjoy my job.
And where are you working on? Do you like your job or you'd like another job?
I do not have much free time. And this time I like to be at home playing with my cat. His nickname Fluffy. I also have a rabbit. I love animals. Do you love animals? Do you have any pets at home?
I'm sending you my photos in the workplace. Even sending photos of his rabbit and the cat pictures.
Waiting for your letter.
Kisses, Ekaterina.

The cat and rabbit aside, the photo's Ekaterina sent this time were, if anything, even more stunning than the first. The girl was sensational (if she, in fact, existed), and I could feel my helpless longing for it all to be true starting to overcome my better judgement.

The only thing for it was to seek a second opinion. I sent copies of her hottest photo to my friends Bernie, Nick and Charlotte.

Bernie's opinion was typically unhelpful. While he agreed that Ekaterina did indeed look hot, his personal recommendation was to go for something Brazilian or Spanish. Ever the latin-obsessive, that was Bernie.

Charlotte's opinion was much simpler: it was a scam. All of these foreign women were a scam. Through some less-than-devious hacking (she had guessed his password as being their daughter's name), she had gained access to her ex's email account, and could see all of the foreign women has was in touch with. Every one had been a bitter disappointment, and several had left him severely out of pocket. “Don't be as sad as Seb, Ben!” was her final word.

I found out what Nick thought the next time I ran into him at the Horse. Apparently, he had shown the photo to Julie, who had recognised it at once. One of her male friends had been messaging the exact same girl (or, more likely, someone claiming to to the exact same girl), for several weeks. And he had been stung big time.

It was identity theft, pure and simple. The purpose of all the emails and all the questions was to find out enough information to use the victim's identity in bogus credit applications and the like.

And, once more, the cynical side of my nature was proven correct. At least I had the self-respect not to mail “Ekaterina” again (most probably a 15 stone scam artist called Boris, with a bad personal hygene problem and a whole stack of photo's stolen from some girl's Facebook page). If something seems to good to be true, that's simply because it is.