A woman starts chatting with an unknown man on a dating website. She is tired of being alone and she feels the years slipping away from her hands. He, handsome and very seductive, is looking for a prey to capture. The first few months were informal chats between emails and phone calls. But then the story turned deep and the stranger convinced her to send him money.
Thousands of women have been deceived in this way, giving away their trust only to be left devastated and with their bank accounts empty. But the Swedish María Grette wanted to go further...
The story began in 2010, when -after five years fighting to divorce her ex- on her 62nd birthday Maria confessed to her friends that she was tired of being single. Between jokes and the occasional drink, they created a profile for him on a dating site.
"It was just a bit of fun, a lighthearted thing," the mother of six recalled in dialogue with The Mirror. "I never intended to date, it was just a bunch of girls playing around."
Weeks passed and Maria forgot about the dating website. Although she received notifications from some men who had sent her messages, she was too busy running her art business to pay attention to these hunks. But one day, he decided to read the messages.
"I still don't know what made me log in that day," he explained. "It was a sudden impulse. I went through the messages, thinking there was no one I wanted to reply to when suddenly a different man appeared." It was from a 58-year-old Dane who had been raised in South Carolina. "Something in his words caught my attention," Maria told the BBC.
"It was expressed in a rather old-fashioned way, and there was something beyond words that really struck me." However, she put that aside and responded. They soon moved on to emailing, then texting every day.
He told her that his name was Johnny, that he was 58 years old, that he was a civil engineer and was born in Denmark but worked in the UK. He also told her that he had a tough story behind him, having lost his wife and being left alone to raise his child, even though the boy had grown up smoothly and was studying at Manchester University.
Maria was hooked and the talk progressed to phone calls after a couple of weeks.
The first time she called, Maria was surprised that she couldn't place her accent. "It was the first thing I reacted to, because I had never heard an accent like that and I have lived in several countries," the woman said. "He told me that he grew up in New Orleans and that's how they talk there." But what captivated her was his style of speaking: "He had a sweetness, a quaintness that I attributed to an old-fashioned upbringing."
The expected meeting
After three months, Maria and Johnny made plans to meet. Johnny would visit her in Sweden, but she first had to fly to Nigeria for a job interview. Maria's excitement grew and she prepared for his arrival.
Johnny said he was taking their son Nick with him on the trip, and when he called her from Heathrow airport, Maria spoke to them both on the phone. The plan was complete down to the smallest detail.
But then everything broke. The next call she received from him was at 5 in the morning to tell her that she was in a hospital in Lagos.
He told her that they had been robbed and Nick had been shot in the head. The thieves had stolen their bank cards and passports, and they were penniless. Yes or yes they needed some money to receive medical treatment. Nick was in critical condition and the hospital was demanding about $1,500.
She didn't even analyze what she just heard, she just executed. She ran to Western Union to send him the money. "My only thought was to save two lives," he explained. "Johnny told me that if his son died, he would die too. I went into catastrophe mode, without thinking."
However, this was just the beginning. Johnny told him that there were complications and that they needed more money, and the sequence was repeated for several weeks. Johnny begged for cash to save Nick, and Maria, blinded by love and panic, sent him. Until the woman began to doubt.
He was prepared for this. He knew the questions would come and his response would be indignant. "The tone of the messages changed, almost as if they came from a different voice," Maria explained. "He accused me of being stingy."
The spell was broken
The scam came to light, Maria was furious. "I hope you can live in peace knowing all the damage you did," she told him by email. I felt shame and guilt. She hated herself: "I couldn't believe how stupid I had been for giving him the money." In total he had sent her £8,000.
So far the story followed the classic script of a scam. She was hurt by the scam and by losing the man she loved, but suddenly Johnny contacted her to apologize. He admitted that he had lied to her about who he was and told her the truth. He was a 24-year-old Nigerian who worked for a scam syndicate.
He was a smart man but things hadn't turned out the way he expected. He had graduated from college two years earlier but had no job and no money, so he had to resort to robbery.
Maria couldn't turn off what she felt for him. "Although the situation had been false, the connection between the two hearts had been real. I was admiring her courage in getting back in touch with me."
Johnny told her that his colleagues had warned him about falling for a client, but he had been fighting his feelings for her for a while.
The chemistry between them was still there and they became friends again. "When you've built a relationship based on lies and those lies are revealed, there's nothing left to build it on except the truth," Maria acknowledged. "We had to meet in real life, be in front of each other and be who we really are."
Johnny was denied a visa to Sweden, so the only option was for Maria to visit Africa for the first time. Again she was betting on him. She flew eight hours to the city of Abuja, Johnny met her at the airport, and as soon as she saw him, she started crying. "It was like meeting someone I've always known," he explained.
From Anger to Solidarity
Maria and Johnny spent two wonderful weeks together in Nigeria, as friends. She met several other con artists and was surprised that these smart young men had so few career options. When it was time to fly home, Maria feared for Johnny's safety.
"Some union members saw him as a quitter, and I was worried they would hurt him. I made him promise to leave town and go back to his parents, who knew nothing about his scam."
A week after she left, Johnny fled town. Together, they came up with a plan to get him out of Africa, and within six months, he enrolled in an American university to study oil management. Maria helped him with money throughout his expensive studies and although they have never seen each other again, they have kept in regular contact.
Maria still had the unsettling feeling that she had to do something for these desperate young people in Nigeria. Determined to make a difference, she created a charity that helps talented Nigerian artists sell their work abroad. Over the past few years, he has helped many artists gain international recognition.
Despite the pain and financial loss she suffered, Maria has no regrets. "People have asked me: 'Did you get your money back?' That's a very superficial question, because this story is not about money, it's a story about finding someone to be connected with."Look also
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