The Sunday Times Magazine: Never Love A Stranger

Victims of online romance scams speak out about their determination to make the scammers pay


Sonia Richards (Leo Maguire)

The kitchen table is aflutter with money-transfer receipts, an origami mountain built by Western Union. £299, £1,237, £972, £697, £992, £1,000. All signed from one sender: Sonia Richards. £157, £217, £107… Why did she send such random amounts? Sonia shrugs: “I just sent whatever I had.” £1,470, £62, £157… The pile is the centrepiece of the kitchen-dining-living room of Sonia’s cramped one-bedroom flat, rented to her by a homelessness charity. Among the sparse decorations is a bright line of birthday cards. Yesterday Sonia turned 56. “I’ve thought about killing myself,” she says, starting to cry, “I want to run away and live in a hole.” Her eye make-up runs to two blue-black smudges.

Two years ago, Sonia was having the best day of her life. The Man of Her Dreams had just popped the question. Sonia giggles like a crushed-out schoolgirl when she describes him. American-sitcom-actor good looks. Salt-and-pepper hair, sexy goatee, muscular biceps, green-grey eyes. (“Actually, I didn’t like his eyes, they looked scary,” she laughs.) A well-travelled, funny, kind Romanian millionaire, as versed in Gothic architecture as in silver-tongued phone sex. His name was Jack Briggs.

“It was the first time I tried online dating,” says Sonia in her soft Cornish burr. “It was my friend’s idea. He found a website and set up my profile.”

Sonia seems younger than her age. Her face is wide-eyed and soft-featured; her childlike manner segues from eager-to-please to skittish. Her little flat is in Liskeard, a market town of 9,000 inhabitants with granite houses and cobbled streets, where she has lived all her life. She met her husband here at 19, raised two children (now 33 and 31). And it was here, 32 years later, that her marriage was dissolved and she found herself single again.

“My husband was very controlling,” she explains, “not physically, but mentally. He always wanted me around the house. He never used to compliment me. Or call me. Or say I looked nice. My father was a controller too. I’d always been controlled by men, it’s all I’d understood.”

Six months after the break-up, still finding her feet, she was encouraged by friends to join a dating site. One took her picture and helped set up her profile. “I was really nervous,” she blushes. “I certainly wasn’t looking for love. I was sorting my life out.” Then along came Jack.

He said, ‘I can’t wait to meet you, I’m going to buy you sexy lingerie. Take off your panties.’ In my marriage it had never been like thatTall and handsome. Own house and car. GSOH, What a catch! His pad was in London, his parents exotic, his pillow talk highbrow. “He said his mother lived in Romania and he’d love to take me there. He said, ‘You’ll love the architecture.’ He’d say, ‘How beautiful you look!’ He said, ‘I’m really falling in love with you, your voice is so sexy, I just want to hear it.’ It was always ‘honey’, then ‘baby’. It was nice getting that attention from someone, after my marriage where I didn’t get it at all.”

The sweet talk turned into passionate poetry. “In spiritual solitude/ I surrender/ Beyond the heavens I/ Totally surrender/And faith grows/ And the barrier/ Of distance/ Is shattered/And/At my command/ I envision/ You/ And weaken/At the mere thought of You.”

The poetry became phone sex: “He said, ‘I can’t wait to meet you, I’m going to buy you sexy lingerie.’ He’d say, ‘Take off your panties.’ In my marriage it wasn’t like that.”

She sent her friends Jack’s picture. “They said, ‘Wow! You’ve got yourself a hot date. If he makes you happy, go for it!’” So she set a date to meet Jack, but before it came, something else did.

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subject: Will you marry me?

“My darling, you’re not going to believe it but I’ve made my mind up, you’re the one for me.

I know this isn’t how they do it Las Vegas style, and this may come as a surprise to you because it’s not the way I want to do it but I want to marry you. Will you accept my marriage proposal? I will do it properly when we meet up.” He might be a bit corny but his money was in it. Attached was a picture of a fat, diamond-studded gold ring.

Sonia said yes. She said, ‘Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes!’ She ran to the theatre (Beauty and the Beast), gushing to the woman next to her, “My boyfriend proposed today! I’ve accepted!” “Oh my gaaaaad!” said the woman. “Go for it!” laughed Sonia’s friends. “I loved it!” grins Sonia. There was only one thing: she still had not met him.

“He was going to come and collect me at Heathrow and take me to his house,” Sonia recalls.“I loaded myself up with make-up and jewellery. I thought, ‘I’ll make an effort for this man.’ I knew he was well-off and he would be dressed respectably, so I wanted to look as good as I could. I was so nervous, but really excited.”

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