Love a man in uniform? Online dating scammers hope so
WASHINGTON — All together now: All you need is love. Love is all you need.
It seems like such a simple recommendation, and yet it can be awfully hard to find this essential component of a happy and fulfilling life. We spend a lot of time searching for The One, the person who will love us as much as we love him or her.
Dede (not her real name), who lives in Montgomery County, Md., thought she'd found him once. Well, twice. A mother of three, she divorced after 24 years of marriage.
"It was not my decision," Dede said. Still, she said, "it was something that needed to happen."
Dede had been out of the dating scene for a while. She's 60. "It's a tough age," she told me.
And it's made tougher, Dede thinks, by her job. She works in an industry that employs mainly women. Opportunities to meet men are scarce. Dede is looking for love in what researchers call a "thin market." That, as a 2012 paper on online dating in the American Sociological Review put it, is "when the cost of identifying multiple potential partners who meet minimum criteria may be large enough to present a barrier to relationship formation."
Dede joked that she'll have to pin her relationship hopes on a retirement community.
Of course, there's one sure-fire way of maximizing exposure to multiple potential partners, and that's by harnessing the power of the Internet.
Dede is not of the age that typically uses online dating. It's most prevalent among 25- to 34-year-olds, 22 percent of whom have used online dating sites or apps, according to the Pew Research Center.
"There's no stigma to it now," Dede said of online dating. In 2013, she joined Match.com. She went on a few dates as a result, but found the experience somewhat disappointing.
"One guy was half an hour late and didn't even apologize," she said. Others didn't look anything like their profile pictures.
Dede let her Match.com membership lapse and then rejoined last summer. Again, nothing seemed to click, but as her subscription was about to expire, Dede extended the geographic range of her searches. "I put it out farther, to include Baltimore," she said. "It came up with like 2,100 people."
One of those was a man named Mark Handle. In his profile photo, he is seated at a picnic table, his body turned toward the camera. He has a friendly face, salt-and-pepper hair, a nice smile.
According to his profile, Mark, 58, was from Killeen, Texas, but currently living in Baltimore.
"I'm thinking Baltimore's not too far away," Dede said.
What she especially liked about Mark was the age range of women he said he was interested in meeting: 50 to 68. "Many of these men who are 60 are going for 35-year-olds," Dede told me. "That just turns me off."
Dede sent Mark a note through Match's messaging system. He responded, and they fell into a casual online conversation.
"He was very kind," Dede told me. "He was very funny, very endearing. ... We got to the point where it was bantering and chattering back and forth."
Dede wrote about the horse she owned and about plans for her father's birthday. Mark shared information about his life. He said he was in the Army and had recently accompanied the body of Maj. Gen. Harold Greene back to the United States. (Greene had been killed by a gunman in August in Kabul.)
After about a week of communicating, Mark announced that he was being sent back to Afghanistan but would have access to the Internet there.
Mark sent photos, including some of him in uniform. In one, he was sliding an omelet off a pan into a plate held by a disabled soldier.
On Labor Day, Mark wrote about some of the things he enjoyed doing — swimming, golfing, camping — and lamented that he had to do them alone. He asked Dede if she liked the outdoors.
He asked something else, too.
"You really seem like the busy type," Mark wrote. "How about text messaging? That could save us some time."
And so Dede switched to text messaging, communicating back and forth via Yahoo Messenger with a man who increasingly seemed like he might be The One.
The first flag
Handle was coming home at last. No one was more excited about this than Dede, who had kept in touch with Mark, at his suggestion, via Yahoo Messenger. In January, Mark wrote Dede that he was coming home and even sent a PDF file detailing his itinerary. (He was flying on Lufthansa from Kuwait to Germany to Baltimore.) He'd floated to Dede the idea of staying with her, but that wasn't something she could agree to. Well, give me your address, Mark said, so I can find a hotel near you.
During one of their Yahoo Messenger chats not long before he was due to return, Mark raised something a bit odd. A box he was shipping home was unexpectedly held up in London. The contents were quite valuable, and the insurance was expensive.
"He didn't come out right away and say, 'I need $12,000,'" Dede said. "He just said the insurance was going to cost $12,000 and he didn't have it. I said, 'That's really a shame. I'm sorry I can't help you.' Then he just dropped it."
A red flag? To Dede, it was more like a pink one.
"He didn't press me for it," she told me. "I didn't feel threatened. That's when the chocolate and flowers came."
Mark sent a dozen and a half red roses and a box of candy to Dede's home. "I hope this makes you smile," read the note. "Can't wait to see you soon. — Mark." Later, he called her, but the phone connection was so staticky that Dede hung up.
In his next text message to Dede, Mark said he had found most of the money to ship the box (it supposedly contained diamonds). All he needed was $3,000. Could he count on her for it? He promised to pay her back.
"That's when I knew it was a scam," she said.
A long scam. "He emailed me for five months before he asked for anything," Dede said.
She assumes he was stringing along multiple women, each at a different part of the seduction. She can imagine him sitting at the computer with a spreadsheet so he could keep the myriad details straight.
"He was so smooth," Dede said. "He had this down pat. He had to have gotten money from women before."
Dede is glad he didn't get anything from her — and she even got 18 roses and a box of chocolates.
"He's out that money," she said with a laugh. "It makes me feel good."
Dede thinks online dating services should do more to screen out scammers, but she ignored many of the warnings that Match.com has on its site, including to be suspicious of anyone who asks to chat on an outside email or a messaging service, and to not share personal information such as phone numbers and addresses.
What particularly bothered Dede was the fact that her scammer draped himself in the patriotic mantle of the U.S. military, talking about his supposed service in Afghanistan.
I asked Dede to send me the correspondence between Mark and herself. She also forwarded me the photos he'd sent her. I did an image search on the photos and found a hit. The man with whom Dede thought she was corresponding — he of the salt-and-pepper hair and friendly smile — was closer than she knew. He worked at the Pentagon, where he was the Army's top enlisted soldier.
The man in the photos knew that women all over the world were falling in love with him, and he wished he could do something to stop it.
The many imposters
Despite being happily married for 13 years, Ray Chandler is one of the world's most eligible bachelors.
Single women can find him on the dating site DateMeMateMe.com, where he confesses to being "Very new to this dating thing and am looking to see where this takes me." At FishMeetFish.com, under the username RealChandler, he explains, "I would love my first date to be something special."
At GirlsDateforFree.com, Chandler describes himself as being 6-2 and weighing 158 pounds. At AdultSingles.com he is 5-11 and weighs a worrisome 85 pounds.
He is on Google+, LinkedIn and Facebook, where as recently as last week a Kentucky woman named Lois had posted a note: "Hi baby just calling to see what you was doing."
Literally hundreds of dating profiles and social media accounts are illustrated with photographs of the same handsome salt-and-pepper-haired military man.
Dede responded to just such a picture when she saw it on Match.com in August. The reverse image search turned up the real person in the photo: Raymond Chandler, who recently stepped down as sergeant major of the Army. When I sent Dede a link to Chandler's official Defense Department bio, she messaged back: "OMG! That is him! Does this guy know that someone is using his ID?"
Does he ever. And he's none too happy about it. Neither is his wife.
"The fact that people decided to use my image for their own personal gain, it felt like I was violated," Chandler told me last week.
He's a high-profile example of the military romance scheme, where West Africa-based scammers scour Pentagon websites, Facebook pages and other social media accounts to harvest photographs of troops. Using the images — and, often, real biographical information — they create fictitious profiles and prey on women.
"I've talked to people who've given up to $70,000 and never met the person," said Chris Grey, of the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command (CID).
Although these cases do not involve CID — military personnel are not the scammers or the victims — Grey has taken it upon himself to spread the word. "I'm a retired Marine," he said. "I don't want people to think a fellow service person is scamming them out of money."
The scammers typically work in teams and have different ways to extract their filthy lucre. Some, like Dede's, ask for money to ship something. Others tell their victims they desperately want to meet in person but must pay to go on leave. Grey has posted online dozens of examples of fake documents used by scammers, including a "Fiance Request Form" with a "registration fee" of $350.
Photos of senior Army leaders have proved so popular that the Army's public affairs office monitors misuse.
"They pop up in the 20s per day, usually with Facebook," Master Sgt. Michelle Johnson said.
Some victims have a tough time accepting that they've been scammed.
Said Grey: "It's really sad, because once you tell them this person has no idea their picture's been taken, they still want to talk to that person. They're emotionally attached to the thought of being in love."
Some are convinced that they've been scammed by the person in the photograph. Chandler said a woman in Poland went so far as to find the address of one of his adult sons and send an irate letter.
"We got the Army G-2 intelligence folks to get in contact with the Polish Embassy," Chandler said. "They had to go physically to her and tell her to stop."
Chandler said he was concerned because at the time he was on the hit list of an al-Qaida splinter group. If a broken-hearted Polish woman could find his son, well, that was worrisome.
Said Chandler's wife, Jeanne: "We heard about one lady, the guy was impersonating Gen. [David] Petraeus. She sold her house because she was going to go live in the general's house and sent the scammer the money."
"We heard about one lady, the guy was impersonating Gen. [David] Petraeus. She sold her house because she was going to go live in the general's house and sent the scammer the money."
While her husband served as sergeant major of the Army, Jeanne became adept at finding fake accounts. She would punch in a few search terms, see what popped up and then try to get the bogus pages taken down.
"It was satisfying in that I knew there would be a result, so that scammer's not victimizing anybody," she said. "It was like being a private eye."
But like a pernicious weed, every time an account is closed, more spring up in its place.
I sent Jeanne the photographs that Dede's scammer had sent her. Some were taken from Army websites, others from an official Facebook page. One had Chandler's head crudely Photoshopped on a different body.
The real Chandlers have a blended family, with six children and 12 grandchildren between them.
How did the couple meet? "I met him at the luggage carousel at the Shreveport airport," Jeanne said.
That method might not work for everybody. If you're involved with online dating, remember: Be suspicious, be vigilant, be careful. And never — never — send anyone money.
Kelly is a columnist for The Washington Post's Metro section.