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FRESH MAGAZINE

The (On-Line) Dating Game It's No Game
(Published in "Fresh" Magazine)

By: Rick Johnson (3000 Words)

It’s easy. It’s convenient. It’s safe. It may seem perfect for someone who has been out of the dating scene for some time.

There’s no risky bar scene, where the differences between the wolves and potential mates are obscured by the well-rehearsed patter and the free flow of alcohol. There’s none of the uncertainty of a blind date arranged by a friend whose judgment about these things is his or hers, not yours. There’s none of the risks of an office romance that so easily may turn into an office entanglement that can be both personally and professionally threatening. There’s even a useful level of anonymity until you choose to make a personal connection. It seems like all of the choices are yours to make.

It’s dating in the computer age – connecting on-line with any one of dozens of services that offer to make that perfect “personal connection.” It takes a fee, a few minutes filling out a profile, perhaps providing a photograph and an Email address. Then the service either opens up its extensive library of profiles for review, or it may even offer to provide one or more profiles that supposedly match yours.

Apparently missing from the process, beyond some kind of personal matchmaking, is the extent to which the information submitted and passed on to potential suitors is verified, even whether any verification is conducted at all.

Decision time.

To this point, the only commitment made has been to the process. Should you make the first move? What help does the dating site offer? Will any initial contact be anonymous, perhaps mediated by the service?

Once a connection is made, there are exchanges of Email messages. Then it moves to exchanges of phone calls. More personal information is shared… home address, telephone number, work place, work number, health club location, favorite grocery store, information about friends and associates. Gifts are exchanged. The more information exchanged, the more committed the relationship becomes, and the more in command the other person becomes. If all goes well, it progresses to a meeting, even a formal date.

There’s no thought whatever that the person on the other side of the contact could be a predator trolling for the adult version of a 14-year-old in a children’s on-line chat room, and that the motive is identify theft, stalking, or worse, but that’s exactly what happened to one young Denver area woman.

Ashley liked the idea of on-line dating. She is a busy, well-educated, 28-year-old workingwoman, outgoing, perceptive, and computer literate. She was matched by one of the most heavily advertised on-line dating services with Michael.

Michael said he held a degree in pharmacy from a major Illinois university, and that he also held a law degree from that university’s School of Law. He said that he was working on an additional pharmacy degree from another major Illinois university. He sent Ashley photos of himself, a well-muscled, athletic young man – photos of him swimming, biking, climbing… photos of his family and friends.

The information exchanged wasn’t just personal. It was specific.
Ashley mentioned that she works out at a local athletic club. Michael quickly let her know that he also loves to work out. Ashley identified her health club. Michael told her that he was familiar with the branch of that club in Chicago and actually was considering a membership.

The only complication in the relationship was that Michael said he is deaf, so telephone conversation was out of the question. Still, they freely and frequently exchanged Email messages and text messages.

It was a highly-charged, emotional package – a powerful appeal to an open, warm-heated young woman who saw exactly what she was supposed to see and saw nothing of what she was not supposed to see. And it all was facilitated by the almost addictive nature and largely psychological impact of Email and text messaging.

The effects are not unlike those of radio dramas of old. The words generate personal images that are imaginative, emotional, and that easily can have no basis in fact. There’s not likely to be danger in perceptions arising from a radio drama, but the same magic in Email or text messaging can be the stuff of deceit and great danger.

The Emails and text messages continued. February became March. March became April. At one point, Ashley was going to be in Chicago on business. She and Michael made arrangements to meet at the airport when she arrived. Ashley arrived and waited with great expectations at the appointed time and place in the terminal. It was noisy and crowded. Ashley was concerned that Michael might not be able to notice her in the middle of all of that commotion.

Ashley paced, waited, paced again, but there was no meeting… only another text message. Something had come up. Michael couldn’t make it.

April became May. Good news! Michael had taken a summer internship with a Denver area company. Ashley and Michael finally would be able to meet face-to-face and perhaps heart-to-heart. But that didn’t happen.

After his arrival in Colorado, the Emails and text messages continued, but there always was something that prevented a meeting. Weeks went by. Then, finally, there was to be a meeting, again at an airport… this time in Denver. Michael said he was returning to Chicago for a couple of days. Ashley was there at Denver International Airport at the appointed time and place in the center of the noisy and crowded main terminal.
Would the realization that she had been discovered stop her in her tracks? Or would it push her over the edge into more dangerous conduct?

Again, she waited. Again no Michael. Again, a text message. Something had come up and the trip had been cancelled.
There were other plans to meet, but each time, Michael couldn’t make it. Each time, there was an exchange of Email and text messages, with Ashley pleading for explanations and with Michael explaining, apologizing, sending gifts, and promising that they would meet.

Ashley was confused, emotionally drained by the roller coaster of expectations and disappointments. Her mother was worried, worried to the point of finally calling for help.
Over almost two hours, Ashley’s mother described the failed meetings, the text messaging, the emails, the exchange of gifts, the exchange of information, including the personal details that Ashley willingly had shared with Michael.
I was more than just suspicious. There was one obvious reason why Michael had one excuse after another for canceling meetings. He was not who he said he was.

More threatening was the suspicion that Ashley could be at real risk, that Michael was stalking Ashley… that, whomever he was, Michael actually may have been at the locations that he had arranged with Ashley… secretly watching her, a kind of psychological and emotional intruder hiding in plain sight.

Our investigation started with a background investigation of Michael… more correctly, of the information Michael had provided to Ashley. He had given Ashley his full name, of course, and his date of birth, even his address in Illinois.

With that information, we tried to verify his claims of a pharmacy degree from the university in Illinois, a law degree from the university in Illinois, enrollment for another degree, his employment at a Denver area company, and a summer spent as a counselor at a deaf children’s camp in the Colorado mountains.

In response to each of our queries, the answer was the same: No, never heard of him, nothing even similar in the records.

We delved deeper. Again, just dead-ends. We found no record of any kind, anywhere, for Michael. But there was one good lead. The address in Illinois that Michael had given to Ashley was a real address. That address was traced, not to Michael, but to an Asian female by the name of Pamela Nguyen.

Just another dead-end. Then, maybe not.

Who is Pamela Nguyen? Is there a connection somehow with Michael? I suspected that there was more of a connection than might be apparent.

I arranged a meeting at my office with Ashley and her mother. Her mother arrived first. I briefed her on the results so far. She listened, occasionally asking questions. Some I could answer at this point. Some I couldn’t. I could see the concern in her eyes. Ashley arrived. As her mother and I carefully detailed the information I had found, failed to find, Ashley visibly slumped in her chair. She was close to tears, but the worst was yet to be verified.

As we spoke, one of my investigators called the Denver area company where Michael supposedly worked. The response was as I expected. No, never heard of him. But that wasn’t the end of it.

An investigation can take many forms and sudden turns. At its simplest, an investigation is a linear process of finding and verifying information that leads to a conclusion. At the other end of the scale, information that can’t be verified or proves to be false leads to a much more complex search for a context that may help provide an explanation. The context here is a highly detailed personal history that couldn’t be linked to Michael. Underlying that context is the fact that the best lies are at least partially truthful, making the specifics easier to remember.

The personal history didn’t belong to Michael, but could some of it belong to someone else? The only other name we had found during our investigation was the name, Pamela Nguyen. She owned the property at the Illinois address given by Michael.

Another of my investigators called the medical company again, but this time, the investigator asked to speak to Pamela Nguyen. Our call was transferred to another extension and a female answered and explained that Pamela was unable to come to the phone, that she is deaf, and would we want to leave a message.

We then verified that Pamela Nguyen held a degree in pharmacy and that it was Pamela Nguyen who worked as a counselor one summer for the camp for deaf children in the Colorado Mountains. There was no law degree and no additional enrollment at a second Illinois school, but the result was clear – Michael actually was Pamela Nguyen posing as Michael, and she was stalking Ashley.

Stalking is a misdemeanor offense in Colorado under 18-9-111 (4), Colorado Revised Statutes, but that belies the ultimate danger that a stalker represents. A key part of the statute’s language:

Because stalking involves highly inappropriate intensity, persistence, and possessiveness, it entails great unpredictability and creates great stress and fear for the victim. Stalking involves severe intrusions on the victim's personal privacy and autonomy, with an immediate and long-lasting impact on quality of life as well as risks to security and safety of the victim and persons close to the victim, even in the absence of express threats of physical harm. The general assembly hereby recognizes the seriousness posed by stalking and adopts the provisions of this subsection (4) and subsections (5) and (6) of this section with the goal of encouraging and authorizing effective intervention before stalking can escalate into behavior that has even more serious consequences.

We next discovered that the photos supposedly of Michael swimming, biking, and running turned out to be photos of a military man, a doctor. The photos had been pulled from an Internet site. Easy. Anyone can do it. Just cut, paste, save, Email.

There was little doubt now that those meetings with Ashley that supposedly were cancelled likely had actually taken place, except that, while Michael never showed up, Pamela likely did show up and was watching Ashley the whole time, stalking her, a shadow in the background, reveling in this most psychologically invasive charade.

Ashley and her mother were stunned, embarrassed, and angry that she had been so badly fooled. The issue now was how to put an end to the charade, to make sure that Pamela could cause no further damage.

We now decided to set up a simple sting. There would be no contact with Pamela. That would come later. This would be to obtain visual confirmation of what was going on, that Pamela actually was stalking Ashley.

Ashley sent an Email to “Michael” letting him know that she was going to be at a particular restaurant to meet friends. She didn’t specifically invite “Michael.” Even without an invitation, we expected that Pamela might show up. If she did, we were going to be there.

We had a reasonably good description of Pamela, but we also wanted to take photographs and identify any vehicle she was driving and, if she did show up, we were prepared to follow her when she left. We needed to discover where she was living in the event that a formal complaint was to be filed.

Confirmation was immediate. Sitting inside the restaurant before Ashley arrived was a young, well but casually dressed Oriental woman wearing a hearing aid. A laptop computer was open on the table in front of her. We had expected the presence of a laptop. Many of the locations selected for meetings by Michael provided some type of Internet access. The restaurant we chose provided free Wi-Fi Internet access.

Ashley arrived and sat down at a table. As planned, she ordered coffee, waited 20 minutes, then left the restaurant. A few minutes later, the young Asian woman closed up the computer and left the restaurant. Our investigator stationed outside identified her vehicle and its license plate number. He followed her when she drove away.

Identification of the vehicle driven by Pamela was critical. Ashley later found it parked near her car in the lot of Ashley’s health club. Pamela obviously was watching Ashley at places other than those where meetings had been arranged.

The next step was another sting, but this time, my plan was to confront Pamela, to personally hand her a letter that detailed what we had learned about her and her charade, that informed her in specific terms to cease and desist, that advised her that a criminal complaint may be filed, and that warned her that it was our intention to notify the dating service she had used and the doctor whose photos she had used in order to fool Ashley.

First, I had to consider the consequences. Would the realization that she had been discovered stop her in her tracks? Or would it push her over the edge into more dangerous conduct?

There was a clear example of consequences in a recent incident in Texas. Private Investigators caught a husband at a hotel with another woman and notified the man’s wife. She drove to the hotel in her Mercedes and, when the husband exited the hotel, she ran him over with the car multiple times, while the investigators helplessly stood by.

A good investigator has to be something of a psychologist, but I needed professional advice. I consulted a forensic psychologist. We thoroughly discussed the options.

The conclusion was that Pamela, who, in every respect so far had not made any kind of threatening contact, was playing some kind of mind game… that she would be embarrassed at discovery but not violent. The plan was to confront Pamela in a public place. Ashley arranged the meeting via text messaging.

The sting went down on a Friday evening at a Denver area restaurant. An associate and I found Pamela sitting at a table, again in advance of the time of the meeting, her laptop again open on the table in front of her, again ready to send a text message to Ashley with another excuse for why Michael had to cancel.

We sat down at the table on either side of her, identified ourselves, and handed her the letter I had prepared that detailed what we intended to do, should she failed to cease and desist – that a criminal complaint may be filed, that warned her, that it was our intention to notify the dating service she had used and the doctor whose photos she had used in order to fool Ashley. As planned, the letter also detailed what we had found out about her, personally. It was imperative that she be convinced, both that her false persona had been deeply penetrated and that our intention to expose her was firm, unless she cooperated.

In a voice typical of those with hearing difficulties, Pamela still tried to claim that Michael couldn’t make the meeting and that he had sent her in his stead, which only added confirmation to what we already knew.

We followed through in a limited way by notifying the on-line dating service and the Navy doctor whose photos had been used. The point of that was to do what we could to prevent a recurrence of the incident. Of course, other dating services and other photos posted on the Internet easily are available, and that’s part of the problem.

There is no way to know whether information collected for profiles by on-line dating services is truthful. Ashley’s problem with Pamela clearly suggests that little if any effort is made by these dating services to verify anything. A woman posing as a man has to be very much out of the ordinary, but clearly any man or woman can present false credentials and troll for likely victims, who then can be plumbed for financial gain, emotional advantage, or worse.

What’s also clear is that anyone who uses these on-line dating services is on their own. “Let the buyer beware” applies here as much as… or more than… it does with any other purchases of goods and services. Nothing should be taken at face value.

Anyone using one of these on-line services must learn as much about someone as possible prior to the arrangement of any meeting. If I can learn where someone claims to be employed, a simple telephone call can verify that. If a photo can be emailed, so can a copy of a photo ID. The first meeting should be during the day in a public place.

A friend can be encouraged to be at that same location, perhaps at a nearby table in a restaurant, just to observe. Each of the friends should have the other’s cell phone number programmed and ready to call. Most importantly, a woman should never leave with a man at that first meeting, and certainly never should get into his car at that first meeting. For any subsequent second or third date, a woman should provide her own transportation to and from the meeting place; and, again, that meeting place should be in a public place.

There’s no question that on-line dating services, most kinds of dating services, can provide a valuable service, but that service isn’t foolproof, and it can be dangerous in unexpected ways, as Pamela proved.

Let the buyer beware.

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