How a Widow Found Out She Had Been Catfished on a Dating App
Two years after her husband passed away, Debbie Stegall decided to search for companionship on Elite Singles, an online dating site. It wasn’t long before she met a man who checked all the boxes: handsome, family-oriented, Christian, and most importantly, someone who seemed to care for her. His name was Greg and he had recently separated from his wife, due to her infidelity. In May 2020, he and Debbie began to text frequently and call each other over the phone.
“[Greg] was always, always a gentleman over the phone.” She recalled. “I told him multiple times, ‘you haven’t done anything out of your way that you shouldn’t have done.’”
He said he lived in a North Carolina town only an hour drive from Debbie. However, he couldn’t meet up with her in person because he was working a job at an oil rig in Texas. Even though they couldn’t see each other, he continued to call her over the phone and let her know his whereabouts, in case she was worried about his well-being.
“I told my brother [when he called], ‘see, he does care about me.’ But he still told me to be careful.” Debbie said.
Other family members were concerned about Debbie’s relationship with Greg as well. Her son warned her that people often lie on their dating profiles and encouraged her to be wary of catfishing. Debbie agreed but continued to talk to Greg. When Greg mentioned that he was coming back to North Carolina, she offered to pick him up at the airport. Despite objections from her friends that it could be unsafe, she completely trusted him.
“I got to the point where I thought I loved this man, and wondered how I could love him if I’ve never seen him.” She said. “But just talking to him over the phone, he just said all the right things. Everything was right. He just made me feel so good.”
During the course of their seven week relationship, from May to June of this year, both Greg and Debbie began to open up about their families, values, feelings, and relationships. At one point, Greg told Debbie about an orphanage in Africa that he regularly volunteered for.
“He had been to Africa because he traveled a lot and said it just broke his heart to see these orphanage children and how they had to live.” Debbie said. “He said he had paid for an orphanage to be built, and he said 60 some kids were there.”
A few days before Debbie was supposed to pick him up from the airport, he brought up the orphanage again—this time with bad news. A flood had apparently destroyed the entire place and killed two children. Debbie called him and could tell he had been crying from how his voice sounded.
The next day, Greg told Debbie that he needed to raise money to build another orphanage or the officials would throw him in jail. Even though Debbie didn’t think the officials had the legal capacity to do that, she followed along because of how upset he seemed. He regularly updated her on how much money he had raised, claiming that he was calling people left and right for the sum. The day after that, he called her to say he only had to raise $3000 more. However, he was struggling to get the money together by the 10:30 PM deadline that night. That was when he asked her if she could borrow the rest from her. He promised he would pay her back as soon as he returned home.
“I knew what was coming,” she stated. “Three hours later, I send a text and I go, ‘no, I’m not going to be able to help you with any money, and no, I’m not going to be able to pick you up at the airport tomorrow. You need to get somebody else. Lastly, whoever you are, whatever your name is, we’re done, we’re through. Period.’”
She blocked him on her phone, but hours later unblocked him one final time to ask for an explanation. She didn’t receive a response until a couple days later, when she received an email from him asking how she was doing. In the email, he admitted that everything he told her was a lie, and also said that this was his first time scamming through online dating.
“He said he’s a poor boy from Africa, and there are no jobs for him there. He said that he knows I have a sweet heart, a caring heart.” Debbie recalled. “And if there’s any way I could find a place in my heart to forgive him, as he could really use a $300 Google Play card.”
She printed out the email and deleted it from her computer. To this day, she does not believe that it was his first time scamming—he was simply too good at it. The only time his story sounded incoherent was when he accidentally gave contradictory information on how tall he was. Otherwise, she thought his background made perfect sense.
“He knew exactly the right things to say.” She reasoned. “He even knew how much time it takes to get from North Carolina to Texas via airplane.”
Despite the heartbreak Debbie had to endure from finding out her relationship was fake all along, she was fortunate in that she spotted the scam before sending any money to the perpetrator. Others in her position are not so lucky. According to the Federal Trade Commission, people reported losing $201 million to romance scams in 2019. Scammers like Greg create fake profiles on dating sites and social media to strike up a relationship and build trust with the victim. Often these scammers look for older women like Debbie, particularly those who are emotionally vulnerable targets. Like Greg, these scammers will often pretend to work on an oil rig, in the military, or as a doctor with an international organization. After building trust with their target, they’ll give various reasons for why they need money: to pay off gambling debts, to plan their visit to the target, or to support a charity they’ve founded.
The FTC recommends that people take certain precautions when meeting someone online to protect themselves from scammers. These include slowing down the relationship, never transferring money, and contacting the bank right away after sending money to a potential scammer.
While no dating site can guarantee that their user base is entirely scammer-free, dating apps like iris are diligent in ensuring the users on their app are authentic. During registration, users must take a selfie to ensure the photos they’ve uploaded to their profile match who they actually are. Iris uses artificial intelligence technology to cross check the facial features of the users with the photo they’ve uploaded. There are also real people on iris’s backend who check the selfies to make sure nothing suspicious is going on.
When asked what advice she would give to other widows who are hoping to online date, Debbie had some wise words to offer.
“The advice I would probably give is, if you can’t talk through Skype or something like that, that’s a big red flag.” Debbie said. “I knew I was lonely, I didn’t know I was that lonely until I got the attention back to me. But you really find out how gullible you can be.”