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Some times, finding love online is the greatest thing but here’s a story of a woman who found love only to realise that it wasn’t love at all!
It was the 25th of August this year. Suddenly a direct message popped on my Twitter (well, messages do pop up all of a sudden). It was from someone called Dr. John Doe*.
He asked me how I was doing and things like that. Then he told me that he was from the United States but currently posted at Aleppo, Syria at the Military Hospital. He worked for the US Medical Corps, he added, as an orthopaedic surgeon. And he went on to talk about the general stuff like situation in India and so on.
I get along. If you know me, I love conversations. I adore listening to stories, and I was glued to his story – a US medical Corps orthopaedic working in Aleppo, describing to me how the situation over there was very bad…how so many civilians had lost their lives in the senseless battle going on there in addition to US soldiers and other staff! He described the daily struggle for survival at the battlefield called Aleppo.
As if all this wasn’t intriguing enough to the empathetic listener in me, his personal life was also full of challenges.
John is 54. He was married and had a 13 year old son named Ethan. Sadly, John lost his wife to colorectal cancer 4 years back, when Ethan was just 9 years old. This left the duo devastated, grieving and restarting their lives, without her.
John, being in the Medical Corps had been deputed to many places where the US govt is playing its non-ending seasons of war. As a result, Ethan was alone in the US. John doesn’t have anyone in his family. His parents died a few years back and his sister died at a very young age.
Born in Portugal, John came to the US as a kid, when his evangelist parents decided to migrate. He loves his son a lot – after all he is the only one he has got now. He calls up Ethan over the weekend and every time he calls, he promises his son in boarding school, that he is coming home soon. His son needs him and misses him a lot.
After much mulling over, John has decided to call it quits at the Medical Corps and start his practice in Atlanta. Interesting! I thought. My heart was filled with emotion for the father-son. Though I had never met or even seen Ethan, I started to care for him.
Meanwhile, our conversations shifted from Twitter to Google Hangout. I downloaded Hangout just to communicate with John, as I don’t know a single person in my small little world who uses it. I asked him if he uses WhatsApp but he said he used the only Hangout. In fact, no WhatsApp, no Facebook, no Instagram. Whoa! In this age, who can live like that? But then, John was 54, so it was understandable, I thought.
It’s not like I didn’t try and search for him on these apps out of curiosity. He wasn’t on any of them. Anyway, I was happy to connect with him through the rudimentary Hangouts.
He had not seen my picture throughout. I wonder why, since I had a profile picture on Twitter. Anyway, I sent him my pic and asked him to send me his picture too. I had seen just one pic of his so far, the one on his Twitter profile. He sent one. The image was quite blurry but it was cute!
He enquired about me, my family, my job and so on. Then he asked me about my religious beliefs, my best and worst moment, my favourite kind of music, things that motivate me, my past relationships. It was like a virtual date, it was a very productive conversation. I told him about myself. That I am a transwoman and a medical teacher. And that I started transitioning a couple of years back. That I am single and I am 36.
As days passed by, our conversations grew, and he started falling for me. His words and phrases slowly became romantic, like the skies gradually changing their colours at dusk. He was a magician who made the most beautiful and romantic phrases appear out of his hat and I was in a spell.
I have spoken to many men in my life but I have never been sent such romantic messages. Even though I was not falling in love with him, here was a man who could teach me how to talk to women and how to woo them. He could conduct a Masterclass.
Every morning and night, I received a beautiful bouquet of words from him. It was old-school and I loved it. I even shared these messages with a friend and told him and his boyfriend to get some inspiration.
Days turned into nights and nights into days. I was two and a half hours ahead of him and hence we could often not talk in real-time as he would be busy catering to his patients. He once described to me that he had a stressful day at work when he lost a patient…a civilian woman who was injured when a bomb was dropped on her house.
He was emotionally shattered that day and his resolve to leave Aleppo grew stronger. John had had a lifetime of a spectacle of insane brutality and gore.
I asked him to get counselling to deal with the stress. John said he doesn’t talk much to people. He would rather spend time alone, listening to music. I was the only one with whom he talked and shared everything. At that time, I was doing the counselling workshop at Sanjeevini, a centre for mental health. So I tried to use some of my skills to listen to him with awareness and to try and help him as much. For once I wished I was with him. I had now started to care for him.
He told me that he would like to invite me to the States once he is back home. That I am the best thing that has happened to him after the birth of his son. And that he loves me. Yes, he said that he loved me. Someone loved me.
Wow! As a transwoman, I have desired love, sought love and not found it. And this is true for a lot of transwomen that I know. No doubt then, that the moment someone comes and shows some care and compassion, we are in awe. This was happening to me. And it was nothing short of a miracle.
I could have never imagined that someone would come into my life like this and fill it with love. Obviously, I was on cloud nine. But there was a glitch. I did not love him. Generally, it is me who falls in love first, but this time I was not falling in love, somehow.
I asked myself. Does it have to do something with the fact that he is 18 years older than me? Well, age doesn’t matter much for me within certain limits, so even though John was 54, it was okay with me.
John had also proposed marriage to me. However, I had heard that a Muslim woman’s marriage to a Christian man was not allowed I started learning more about this topic. Was I worried about shifting base to the US? Probably not. India is quite a transphobic country and hence shifting to the US may not be that bad an idea to restart my life, I thought.
I could not put a finger on why I was not falling in love with him. But if there is a stage called pre-love, then I was in it. And I was seriously considering his marriage proposal. In fact, he was in quite a hurry to get married, which I thought was due to his loneliness and age.
I asked him to send more pics. And he sent old photos of his. He said that he did not get his pics clicked here in Syria. Understandable. And though he didn’t look very handsome, he was okay for his age.
As days passed, he asked me if I would like to have a video call. I avoid video calling at all costs generally, but this time I gave in. Anyway, when the video call started, there was no audio, just video. He said he had muted the audio for security reasons. Remember, things are bad at Aleppo and besides the US army is highly paranoid. So, it was explainable.
Unlike, the general perception of video calls, John was a thorough gentleman. He respected my choices, always. I had a video call with him twice, for 5 minutes each time, in which we simply saw each other’s faces.
I also saw something else – his wedding band. He had told me that his wife died 4 years back, but he still had his wedding band on. This just showed how much he loved his wife and my respect for him grew further. I asked him about his wedding band and he didn’t answer at which I felt guilty of scratching an old wound. In fact, he would not answer some questions, he would just remain silent, and that was a sign for me to know that this is personal and not to be asked.
Meanwhile, with every passing day, he showered more and more lovely words on me. He was the only person in the world who asked me every day without fail how my day was. What’s more, he was interested in knowing about me. And with every passing day, his plans for coming back to the US and our marriage and my shifting to the US grew elaborate.
Since John was a doctor, I expected him to discuss medical stuff. I expected him to tell me the details of the patients he was treating. I expected him to comment medically on my mother’s long list of orthopaedic ailments, being an orthopaedic himself. But he simply asked about her wellbeing. I felt I was getting unnecessarily paranoid. Doctors don’t always like talking medical stuff, right?
Now, there was a new development. The US medical corps head was to visit them at Damascus and John was to attend the meeting. He was excited, for there was some kind of hope that their deployment would end. That he would be able to return back home, though I had my doubts since the US had only increased its activity in Middle East following the alleged drone attack by Iran on the Saudi oil field. Nonetheless, I prayed for his hopes.
He attended the meeting and messaged me late at night that he wanted to talk to me and tell me what happened at the meeting. I was excited. He told me that the news was not very good.
You see, the situation had worsened in Kabul and hence the Head of US medical corps had been ordered to deploy some doctors from Syria to Kabul. And the list included John. Why was that bad news, I asked? He said Kabul was a very dangerous place. A lot of soldiers and doctors have lost their lives there. And he was worried that he may die there. His worries were misplaced, I felt at that time.
After all, from what I knew, the situation had improved in Kabul recently, especially with the US pact with Taliban. I knew my international affairs pretty well. And Aleppo would any day be worse than Kabul. I tried to reason it out with him and allay his fears. And I wondered what is the root of this fear – then he told me.
Last year, he lost his school friend, a fellow doctor in the medical corps in Kabul. And he was worried about himself, about Ethan. I could appreciate his fears now. So, I tried to provide support, as much as I can.
As he was pacified, he said that he would be leaving for Kabul in a couple of days. The deputation was for a month only. He was worried about his valuable documents. He could not leave them at Aleppo, nor could he take them with him to Kabul, which was bloody unsafe.
Neither could he send them to Ethan, who was just a school kid. So, he asked if he could send them to me for safekeeping for some time. I inquired about some other option – couldn’t he keep it in his corps office? Embassy? I mean from what I knew (I had researched a lot) the corps took good care of their employees and their families.
How could they not take care of his documents in his absence? The US is going to the dogs, I thought. Phew! I reluctantly agreed to safeguard his documents. He asked for my mailing address which I dutifully provided. He said that he would register with the diplomatic courier service and that I should receive it in a few days. A day later, he sent me the receipt of him having sent the courier through UN Parcel, which is the UN’s diplomatic courier service.
A few things were troubling me. Why was the weight of this consignment 19 kgs? I mean he was just sending his documents. The charges were way too high. There was also no detailed address of the sender.
So, John told me that the courier would come via Turkey and the diplomat would email me once he was in Turkey. As he said, the email arrived. Cool, I thought.
I read the email and I was in shock. The email said that there was a need to pay the insurance fee of USD 1750, which was a refundable fee and that without this, the courier would not reach me. I dutifully forwarded the email to John to pay the insurance fee. And I wondered how expensive it was to send documents through diplomatic means. He had already paid more than 1000 USD and now this. I wondered why one earth would John do this to send his documents to me for a month.
When I received the email, a storm of thoughts began in my mind. What if John tells me to pay on his behalf? Or what if John is unable to pay? After all, he had his flight to Kabul in a few hours. What if John is a scamster? The trains of what-ifs did not stop.
I held onto hope. John saw my message and very calmly said, ‘Honey, can you settle the fee, so that he can start coming to your country?’ I bluntly said ‘NO’. He was taken aback and reminded me that the fee is refundable. Then he told me that his accounts have been frozen since he was deployed. And that he could somehow manage to pay the 1000 USD fee.
I told him that I smell a fraud here. He kept on sending message after message trying to make me understand but I had moved on to Google in the meantime.
I googled about the UN parcel company. It didn’t have a website. I then proceeded to Google John’s photo. The Google image search is a wonderful software that can do image recognition and share matching results. When I fed in John’s photo, there were 140 results that popped up. Same photo, different social media accounts, different names, different countries, different professions, mostly related to the US army.
I worked through these profiles like I was possessed. With every click, the beautiful castle of my dreams was coming down. Somewhere I wanted to believe that it was not true. This is a mistake. John cannot be a fraud. But then it was all over Google. On anti-scam websites. His photos – I just had 3, but there were more than 20 on internet. In exotic locations and with his children, including the lanky boy Ethan.
I realised that I was getting scammed all this while. It was all done to get 1750 USD from me, maybe more later when the parcel would get stuck somewhere. And I would have to pay more to get it released while John worked in Kabul.
As I went back and read the receipt and email again, I realised that on it was written ‘United Nation’ instead of ‘The United Nations’ at all places. That there is nothing called the Office of the Head of the Diplomatic Service in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Turkey. (I Googled)
Also, it was always written as dollars instead of US Dollars. And lastly, that USD 1050 was not yet paid but was to be paid by me on the arrival of the shipment in India. How had I missed all this?
I also came to know why John never spoke on video calls and why he had the audio muted. From the scam site, I came to know that this man who is probably from Turkey doesn’t have an American accent and that would have given him up. And all those romantic messages I fell for, they were copy-pasted from online quotes sites.
All this was an elaborate plan and a trap. Hundreds of messages exchanged over 35 days. All for this! And he must have done this to hundreds of women across the world.
Oh my God! Shit happens! And shit happened to me; to someone like me who always has her guard up! Someone who believes in doing an internet search for every damn thing. And it happened to me! Though I didn’t pay anything and did not lose any money, I lost faith in something in which I had invested my time and effort. This was a lesson learned.
After this, my mind was occupied with many thoughts and self-doubts. Why was I so gullible? Did I do anything wrong by chatting with someone online? Was I wrong in sharing with them about my life in return for all the love (which I didn’t know at that time was fake) that was being showered on me?
What if I had fallen in love with him, what a disaster of heartbreak it would have been for me? These 35 days of knowing and talking to John were beautiful but fake. He must be doing this to so many women around the world; does he have no emotions? Will I be able to trust someone in the future or think that the next person befriending me is another John Doe? I have no answers, as yet.
It has taken immense courage for me to write this post. I had not discussed my online friendship with John with friends except for a handful of people. And now when you read about this, you may think how stupid I have been. How desperate I have been to find love. And above all how attention-seeking I am to write about it publicly now. But I had to do this; share this. So that, the next time someone starts chatting with you online, you know that I once had someone called John Doe.
Here are a few tips to prevent online romance-scams, which I learnt by burning my fingers:
More tips can be found on WikiHow here.
Picture credits: Pexels
Name changed for legal and safety reasons
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Dr Aqsa Shaikh is a Medical Educator based in Delhi. She is a Community Medicine
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