Louise Gallagher of Calgary wasn’t even looking for a relationship. A 45-year-old partner in a corporate communications firm, she was a busy professional raising two teenage daughters when a charming, impeccably dressed man walked into her office and into her life. "Have we met before?" asked Louise, smiling and extending her hand to this potential new client. Locking eyes with hers, he gave a butter-smooth reply: "If we had met before, I’d never have let you go."
Louise didn't fall for the corny line. But he was compelling and magnetic nonetheless, and eventually she began a relationship with this man, who turned out to be a master of deception. Over the next four years Louise would be conned out of her home, her car, her job – the losses totaling $250,000 – and even her daughters.
At this point you are probably thinking, 'That could never happen to me'. You’re too sharp to fall prey to a man posing as a romantic partner to dupe you into sex, con you out of money or take pleasure in watching you flail helplessly in his elaborately spun web of lies – aren't you?
In truth, we're all vulnerable to any manner of con.
The dangers of romantic fraud
Romantic fraud is most insidious because it breaches the most intimate kind of trust. Perpetrators are remorseless psychopaths who may fabricate an entirely fictitious persona, lying about their background, profession, income, health or marital status. They generally profess an all-consuming love for the ones they dupe that is entirely manufactured, leaving a trail of broken hearts and shattered lives.
"Women who are conned should not be condemned or criticized," says Robert Hare, professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia, a world expert in psychopathy and a consultant to the RCMP and the FBI. "Given the right circumstances, any one of us could be in the same situation." Here, three bright, articulate, attractive women share their stories of how their dream man.
Divorced for five years, Louise Gallagher thought she was too savvy to fall for a pickup artist. But Peter (not his real name) was persistent. He sent a massive bouquet of flowers to Louise's office. He gave her a beautifully framed photograph of herself at a business function. He called her twice a day. Finally she agreed to meet him for dinner. Peter, co-owner of a company that made replicas of exotic cars, oozed charisma. "He kept telling me I was so talented, so perfect," Louise says. "I pushed my intuition aside because I wanted to believe someone thought I was amazing."
Within two weeks Peter proposed. "Whoa! I'm not prepared to do that!" she replied. That's when he told her about his life-threatening heart condition. Louise was skeptical, but over the next few weeks she noticed increasing "episodes" where he seemed to be short of breath. Then one day he called in a shaky voice to say he was in a California hospital on life support.
Crying, he explained that he was part of an organized "family." Louise asked him, "You mean the Mafia?" He replied, "We don’t use that word," but explained that by falling in love with her, he had broken the circle of trust. He warned that his partners were threatening to kidnap Louise's kids. Continuing the far-fetched story, he said he'd been sent three symbolic bullets – one for Louise and two for her daughters. "I didn't really believe it," Louise says. "But a small part of me was thinking, 'What if it’s true?' " There were disturbing signs: Peter called to say a bomb had been placed under her car; phone calls from three different men updating her on Peter’s condition; a dead bird placed on her doorstep.
One day she learned through an acquaintance about another woman dating a man with a similar story. The two women met to compare photos: it was Peter. They went straight to the Calgary police, but because no crime had been committed, nothing could be done. Later, Peter told Louise that since she'd gone to the authorities, the "family" wanted retribution.
"I crumbled," Louise says. "I was crazy with fear." Terrified for her daughters, she sent them to live with their dad. Peter said that because she'd gone to the police, Revenue Canada was now after him for back taxes. Louise started giving Peter money, thousands of dollars at a time, whenever he asked for it. He told her they would buy a house together, but instead he forged her signature on the contract to sell her home and pocketed the profits.
Eventually Peter was arrested and convicted on unrelated charges of fraud, harassment and assault. But after violating his conditional sentence, he persuaded Louise to leave the province with him. Peter took her to Maple Ridge, B.C., where they hid out for three months before the RCMP tracked him down. He served time until August 2006, when he was released. His whereabouts today aren't known.
Louise now realizes this master manipulator duped not only herself but also the other woman, at least one of the men who phoned her with updates and many of his replica-car customers. Today, Louise has resumed her career and a normal family life. She's also dating again. But her financial losses total a staggering quarter-of-a-million dollars. At least she can say, "He has no hold over me anymore."
Louise gives talks on being a victor and has written a self-published book about the deception titled The Dandelion Spirit (available at www.dandelionspirit.com) "because dandelions are bloody determined," she says. Of her horrific ordeal, she says, "I compromised my values right from the start in little ways, because I loved the fact he kept telling me I was perfect. But I developed the assurance that I’m OK exactly the way I am. In that sense I didn’t lose anything. I gained."
An aspiring actress, Eden (not her real name) was thrilled when she got a callback – from the director himself. James (not his real name) didn’t exactly offer her the role, but he invited her to come on set and watch a TV taping. "He was helpful and I thought it would be great for my career," she says. His constant attentions were at first flattering, then thrilling. "Things got intense very fast, moving at lightning speed, and I went along for the ride." Within months he asked her to marry him. She happily agreed and while she didn't have a ring, she considered herself engaged.
James called her at work or at home several times a day; she had only his office number, which he rarely answered. He met her relatives and friends, but she never met his. He said he lived with his traditional European parents, who hadn't accepted his imminent divorce and weren't ready to meet his new fiancée. He often went to her apartment but never stayed over; he always claimed to have an early call on set the next morning.
Eden dismissed any suspicions because she and James saw each other at least three or four times a week. He was always solicitous, charming and passionate. They took day trips together. He showered her with gifts and charmingly written love letters. He took her grocery shopping and insisted on paying. He treated her to meals at upscale restaurants and flew her across the country to meet him at a shoot. He spent time with her parents, promising them he would always look after their daughter.
Eden's instincts leave her questioning James
But by the second year of their relationship, Eden questioned why the divorce papers were taking so long. James blamed the lawyers. She wanted to meet his parents; he said it wasn't the right time. "He always had smooth, believable answers for everything," Eden says. "Although I questioned him, I wasn't overly suspicious because his passion for me was just so real."
When a coworker of Eden's recounted a story of another woman engaged to a similar man, her suspicions were heightened. She followed up on a suburban address her colleague gave her and saw James's car in the driveway. When she rang the doorbell, a woman answered. Eden asked for James. He came to the door, and his jaw dropped. Rushing her outside, he said desperately, "I’m sick! I didn’t know what I was doing!" Eden stormed off. Later, it was confirmed that he was not only still very much married but had at least one other "fiancée."
A 'house of cards'
Eden says, "His whole house of cards had come tumbling down, and I was the one who tumbled it." James showed up at her workplace, pushed her against the wall and threatened her against talking to his wife. Frightened, she hasn't spoken to him since. The experience, while eye-opening, hasn’t made Eden bitter against men. "I'm still open and trusting," she says, "but I keep attuned to gut feelings and I ask a lot more questions."
Liz Cole was chuckling at some of the blatant hyperbole on an Internet dating website when one man’s bio struck her by its very ordinariness: "slightly balding, heavyset, 50, likes cooking, music..." Liz responded to his smile icon with a smile. He responded instantly. Three days later they met for coffee, and while his appearance was exactly as he'd described, John proved to be far from ordinary.
In his charming Irish accent, John entranced Liz with his stories: he was from a long line of Irish nobility; his grandfather had been a wealthy investment banker; his father owned dozens of luxury car dealerships; he had once worked for Bill Gates; he'd been a decorated hero in the Falklands war. Liz, a mental health professional with a degree in sociology and a career providing wellness services to corporations, felt some skepticism.
She says, "There was way too much excitement and things were moving too fast." But mostly she was completely swept away by the grandiosity of it all. Liz's marriage had broken up two years before, she was temporarily living in her mother's tiny house with her two adolescent daughters, and she admits, "Part of me just wanted to drift into somebody else’s story line."
A fast-paced romance
That was January 2007. By March, Liz and John were planning a June wedding. Liz's daughters were dazzled by their mom's charming fiancé. "He talked about the $2.4-million house we’d be moving into. He had my kids picking out furniture and test-driving Bentleys and Land Rovers," she recalls. John always seemed to have pocketfuls of cash, claiming that credit or debit cards would compromise his old-world values.
Liz asked him why, if he was so wealthy, he was living in a small basement apartment. John replied that he was temporarily keeping an eye on a friend's father who had Alzheimer's disease and lived upstairs. She wondered why he took his paycheques to storefront payday lenders. He said it made it easy to wire euros to his daughter, who was training as a pediatric oncologist overseas. One day an old Irish friend of Liz's questioned John about his unusual accent.
John said he was born in the south of Ireland but had done peacekeeping work in the north. The wedding florist and photographer started demanding deposits, but Liz had no money and John could never seem to get to the bank. On the day they faced losing their booking, John phoned Liz and told her he'd been hit by a car and was in hospital.
Unavoidable suspicions arise
Now deeply suspicious, she showed up at his apartment and found him visibly uninjured, but claiming memory loss resulting from a concussion. When he didn't show a few days later for a prearranged Easter dinner, she drove to his apartment and found it cleared out. She later received an e-mail from him saying he'd returned to Ireland for his father's funeral. Now more angry than embarrassed, Liz did some sleuthing online and traced John to Calgary, where, without his knowledge, she was able to re-engage John's romantic interest by creating a false dating profile on Lavalife. She also learned he was born to a working-class Quebec family and has a criminal record for forgery, fraud, robbery and assault. "He’s a puppet master who likes to watch people dance," she says.
Liz's children were initially devastated, but she reassured them they hadn't lost money, property or self-respect – only a little time. Taking full responsibility for the three-month fraudulent romance, she says, "Of course I had doubts all along. But they weren't stronger than my needs." She’s now dating again – and taking things very slowly. Liz Cole's book, Perfect Prey (Manor House), about her experience of being conned, will be released in April.
How to protect yourself against romantic fraud:
First, acknowledge that you could be a potential target. "Who’s vulnerable? Someone who thinks it can't happen to her," says sociologist Sally Caldwell, an associate professor at Texas State University and author of Romantic Deception: The Six Signs He’s Lying (Adams Media Corp., 1999, $10.95). If you’re honest, open and strive to see the best in people, you’re a con's perfect victim. "Putting the responsibility on the woman is a classic case of blaming the victim. When we blame the victim, it makes us feel safe, like, ‘I would have been smarter; therefore, it would never happen to me,' " says Caldwell.
Well, it can. A con game can be so persuasive that intuition alone may not provide a loud enough alert. Caldwell tells of one woman who shared her suspicions about a new beau with her family, who called her irrational and said, "Give it a rest. You deserve a good man." Psychopathy expert Robert Hare, consultant to the RCMP and FBI , advises recognizing your own weak spots, such as a desperation to be in a relationship. "Have a healthy dose of cynicism, particularly if a strong social, sexual or financial relationship is starting to develop," he says.
A romantic con can appear anywhere: at work, on vacation, online, at your place of worship. Be especially cautious of men who have no apparent connections with
relatives, friends or colleagues. Says Lynn Booth, producer of the Global TV series "Very Bad Men" about con artists, "Ask yourself why these men are rolling around loose. Where are those commitments?"
Watch for these other red flags:
• The relationship takes off like a rocket.
• He overwhelms you with attention, eye contact, gifts and promises of adventure.
• He keeps you on a short leash with frequent phone calls.
• He meets your relatives and friends but you don't meet his.
• He becomes evasive or testy when questioned.
• Your intuition tells you that he's too good to be true.
• He asks for access to your financial information or credit cards.
Reporting a con:
If you suspect you're being conned, end the relationship immediately. Change your locks and don't confront him. Most cons won't return for revenge, but psychologist
Robert Hare, professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia and a consultant to the RCMP and the FBI, says there are exceptions and confrontation is risky.
This article was originally titled "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" in the Canadian Living magazine.