How it feels to get seriously scammed


Where’s Sherlock Holmes when you need him????


By Caitlin Kelly

Not good, guys. Not good at all.

Here’s a recent and truly shocking scam perpetrated in a world I know somewhat, that of photographers and other creatives:

It all started with an email from Wendi Murdoch. She claimed that she had found us through a personal recommendation from a senior editor at Conde Naste Traveler. We had just finished talking with Conde Nast Traveler about doing some Instagram featured work on both my ( and Zory’s ( accounts, so the timing made sense. Flattered, I kept reading her pitch about needing some up and coming photographers to help capture the essence of China for an upcoming exhibit centered around the Beijing Winter Olympics in 2022.

I had a rough idea of who Wendi Murdoch was: a Chinese American art philanthropist and shrewd businesswoman who made waves with an expensive divorce from media tycoon Rupert Murdoch.

The photographer flew from San Francisco to Jakarta — of course on her own dime and time — and ended up losing $7,500.


How can anyone be so stupid? So gullible?


Hah! Read a new book, Duped, by veteran journalist Abby Ellin about the liar she almost married. Ellin is nobody’s fool, but was also — and who hasn’t felt this way? — lonely and ready for romance with a handsome and accomplished man who wanted to marry her.

Her gut told her some of his stories felt really unlikely, but (and I know this feeling too, as a fellow career journalist), some stories are both unlikely and true. And no one really wants to keep cross-examining a man who professes love to you.

In 1998, I answered a personal ad in a local weekly newspaper from a man who said he was a lawyer. His “housekeeper” was on the phone with me, as was his (real) mother, Alma.

Here’s his story in the Chicago Tribune, where he deceived many local women before moving to New York and starting again; there, he pretended to be a doctor.

I dated him for four months before (thank God) randomly meeting a former NYPD detective-turned-private-eye who discovered within a day what a bad guy he really was. It was a terrifying experience as this guy stole my mail, used my credit card, forged my signature in front of me…and became so frightening I slept for a week at a friend’s house.

Best of all?

The cops wouldn’t take my case and the district attorney literally laughed it off as “no harm done.”


How do these creeps operate so effectively?


– Use some elements of checkable truth that victims will recognize and find comfortingly familiar

— Flatter victims by admiring something about them

— Learn their specific weaknesses and fears and exploit those

— Count on victims getting blamed for their stupidity and being too embarrassed to alert police and push for arrest and conviction

— Make sure much of it is deniable as a “he said/she said”

— Manipulate their emotions by confusingly flipping from loving and attentive behavior to aggressive and threatening, throwing victims into mystified anxiety and fear

— Threaten victims with retaliation

— Count on victim’s discomfort with appearing cynical and untrusting, even when red flags are flapping!



Have you ever been the victim of a scammer?

40 thoughts on “How it feels to get seriously scammed

  1. Heide

    Horrifying stories like these make me lose a little bit of faith in humanity, but it’s good to be aware that people exist who will prey on our trust, kindness, and weaknesses. I knew a guy like that many years ago and feel fortunate that the worst thing that happened was my spending a king’s ransom to ship a guitar to him in Germany. I never heard from him again after it arrived, and have come to count myself lucky for that.

    1. Exactly! After this happened, I divided the world into two populations — crime victims and the lucky. After a predator has chosen you (and they do), your worldview changes and darkens forever.

  2. Oh yes. I was briefly married to a narcissist. A real scammer and con man. He was threatening and scary and I had to get the police involved to help pry him out of my life.

    After years of no contact, he searched me out about 18 montgs ago to re-start our “relationship.” I was flabbergasted. He had no idea how creepy and inappropriate he had been in tracking me down. I lied about my location and then cjanged my phone number. Keeping an eye on your online presence is very important if you have one of these in your past. Yikes.

    1. How nasty!

      I was also scarred by how the cops reacted…it was a disaster. I reported the guy, then retracted (stupid but surely not the only person to do that); when I went back with clear evidence of SIX felonies (I spent a month doing a thorough investigation), they laughed at me and threw out of the station, sneering “Take it to the DA.” I drove straight there and had a young man sneer again and tell me there was “no damage done” therefore no case. Yeah, right.

      “My” con artist is dead; I checked every few years and this came as a relief. I knew he would not come back to me because — sadly — the world is full of victims too scared to report/arrest/convict.

  3. I knew a woman when I was in the Navy who strung me along for a time, a few months, and then told me one day that her fiancé, a guy she had never mentioned before, was coming home from deployment. The whole time before that she was telling me that she was in love with me and she really played the part, right up until she threw me away like garbage. I was just past twenty, very lonely and very open with my feelings. In other words, easy pickings. She was thirty four, bored and horny. To be honest I would probably have been willing to help her with that, even without all the mind games. The incident triggered a lot of serious emotional/psychological shit, which the Navy wasn’t having (Who can blame them?) so my Navy career ended soon after that. I spent the best part of the next two years in my parents’ basement, smoking pot and listening to side three of the Wall by Pink Floyd, trying in vain to become comfortably numb.
    I was fortunate enough to have a friend who invited me to be his roommate in Atlanta, which broke me out of my funk in time to meet Cathy. I knew she was the one as soon as I met her, but it was still hard to believe. Needless to say I’m glad I stuck around to see how it worked out. Bamboozled by love, oh yeah.
    Last time I checked, my mom still wants to beat her ass

    1. Sorry to read this….but this is exactly how they operate: weak/lonely/needy = vulnerable.

      My experience taught me a powerful lesson, a few…1) I was too lonely and isolated (joined a church); 2) I needed to really examine why (journalist?!!!) I had allowed myself to let shiny appearances seduce me; 3) TRUST my instincts.

      As Abby Ellin admits in her book, we both had strong suspicions that these guys were liars and fabulists but lonely is lonely and when you grill strangers for a living, sometimes you just want to stop doing that.

      Abby is drop-dead gorgeous and smart as hell. I’m not stupid and clean up nice….just because someone is able to lie to you effectively for a while doesn’t mean you’re stupid or a loser.

      It does mean we’ve let down our guard — which is part of being human.

      1. I couldn’t wait to get out of south Florida, where it seemed that most relationships revolved around what someone could get from me. I really longed for the luxury of an unguarded moment.
        I have them now, but there is always a measure of social housekeeping to be done. Some of my older friends (I have seven) think I am kind of a hard-ass about it but that’s all right. I don’t have time in my life to debate the merit of every word that comes out of my mouth or listen to an uninformed amateur’s assessment of what “My problem” is and what I need to do to snap out of it.
        These days there is talk of “Safe spaces” where you can go without being bothered, at least as long as you don’t belong to the wrong social group. I can see why this appeals to people who can be intimidated by being in the same room as someone who doesn’t share their views or values, but I think this concept gives people some bad ideas. Like the idea that there will always be a safe space when they need one or that the fact that you belong to an accepted social group means the other occupants of the safe space will like or accept you as an individual. The only way that works is if you become your very own mobile safe space. The cleaner you keep it, the more you can relax.
        I feel much better now, thanks.

      2. One of the things about Canada I REALLY miss — a lot — is the ability to listen respectfully to another opinion, not yours, and not freak out, start yelling or feel the need to be insulting to “prove” the superiority of your argument.

        I was out to dinner last year in Montreal with 2 guys I met at the hotel bar, attending a conference. We had a great time and I was both amused and delighted to watch them discussing an idea they disagreed strongly on — civilly and politely. It feels 19th century at this point, and impossible in screaming/shouting America.

        One theory about why this is possible in Canada (and who knows?) is that it is an officially bilingual nation — so there is always the “other” whose language is equal in the eyes of the law. Yelling won’t change that.

  4. CBC radio aired a interview yesterday with a woman scammed. She worked for a non-profit organization that provided assistance to at risk women. Long story short – she registered online for a national social work convention, registration included providing her email and phone number. Scammers did their homework, researched the non-profit, culled names from “success stories” and struck. Posing as a former client, scammers emailed the woman with a poignant, comfortably familiar and compelling plea for emergency assistance. Scammers knew names, addresses, phone numbers and personal details enough to prompt a rush transfer of $3,000. All because the victim divulged personal contact information online. Shameful!

    1. Wow. Thanks for sharing that…Very scary indeed as we all, daily, share quite a bit of personal data online.

      I’m very tight with my money so I would never send $3,000 to a stranger. But I know this sort of thing works very well, which is why they keep doing it.

      1. My 82 year old aunt also ran afoul of scammers. The phone rang and a young girls voice said “Grandma?”. My aunt replied “Bridgette, is that you?” (Now they had her grand daughter’s name) Fake granddaughter starts crying, through her tears she tells my aunt she’s been arrested in Washington State. (my family is Canadian) sobbing, she begs for help. Fake girl turns the conversation over to the “arresting officer”. Fake officer says marijuana was found in the car Bridgette and her friends occupied. He assures my aunt Bridgette wasn’t in possession of the pot, but officially his hands were tied. He pauses for a moment then says “Bridgette seems like a respectable young woman, it would be a shame to burden her with criminal charges, maybe we can agree to a amicable solution” (they had my aunt hook, line and sinker) The solution required my aunt to purchase $5000 in iTunes cards in exchange for Bridgette’s release. She had 3 hours to buy them and call back. Off she went, thoroughly convinced of Bridgette’s plight. She maxed out one credit card at a Walmart, went to another store intending to put another $3000 in iTunes on her Amex card – this time the clerk balked at her request and asked why.My aunt didn’t want to say, but the clerk persevered – “has someone called you saying they were a family member in trouble? Did someone tell you to buy iTunes cards?” My aunt told the clerk about Bridgette needing help. “Have you tried calling your granddaughter?” the clerk asked. It hadn’t occurred to my aunt that Bridgette was anywhere else but a jail cell. “Call her now” the clerk insisted. My aunt rang Bridgette, she picked up on the first ring. “Hey Grandma, what’s up?” chirped Bridgette. It only took a moment to determine Bridgette never left Canada and was home studying for exams. My aunt felt so stupid! Walmart wouldn’t let her return $2000 in iTunes cards, but Visa took surprising pity and waived $1000 as fraudulent charges.

      2. I have heard of this scam. I don’t have kids or grandkids, but it’s a powerful way — clearly — to get people to act FAST and not ask tough questions. So glad that clerk was onto it!

        I was “phished” once by phone a few years ago and it was quite something: 1) intense pressure to act RIGHT NOW OR ELSE; 2) a vague threat against me having to do with unpaid credit cards or (another fave) the IRS…I didn’t do anything but it really shook me up emotionally. (In fact, I think I did what I usually do — turned it into a story to warn others.)

        No one wants to get into trouble or see someone we love in trouble.

        These assholes are very skilled.

  5. i’ve never been involved in a huge scam, though i have crossed paths with a few who altered their facts in some interesting ways, in my ongoing experience with online dating. i’m pretty good at spotting red flags now, though i have to say i was not at all in my past. time and experience both have helped with that. i completely understand how it can happen, and how the victim feels shame about being in that role, but when the victim doesn’t approach the world in the same cruel way as the perpetrator, it is bound to happen. i have learned to be more cynical about what people say, and i don’t know if that’s good or bad, but it is one level of protection for me.

    1. It’s very tough. In Toronto and Montreal — also pre-Internet days — I knew many people and so was able to date through friends, work, whatever. Canada, being smaller, means the circles are smaller, so the odds of being lied to as successfully are somewhat less, I think because we can call up a friend or colleague and say, hey do you know….?

      I dated here online between 1994 (when my marriage ended) and 2000 when I met Jose (online) and met a few people who were not wholly truthful. Nothing scary, but it’s tedious and tiring to keep weeding out liars.

      One of the advantages of dating Jose was that, because he then worked at the NYT, his facts were fairly checkable and real and we even (!) knew an editor in common. That helped reassure me. And our industry is really small at a certain level — so very few are going to mess up their very hard-won reputation by lying or being weird. It was then a question of compatibility, not the need to get a polygraph!

  6. The story about “Wendi Murdoch” was fascinating and chilling. Even the smartest, most savvy can get snookered. Those scam artists are seasoned and clever and completely without ethics or morality. They know our weak spots.

    I’ve never been scammed but I feel a little bad every time I turn away from a GoFundMe plea from strangers. Just can’t do it, no matter how sad the story. It’s the perfect way to scam easy marks.Some may be totally sincere, but how would I know which is which?

    1. The thing that immediately caught my eye — and theirs — was the mention of Conde Nast (a company everyone wants to work with) — and the scammers knew it. If they’d named something much less prestigious, no one would have bit.

      Yeah, I know. I would only consider it if I knew the person personally. I’ve been burned enough with some trolls on my Facebook page who proved to be bullies that I don’t even accept new friendship requests. Who needs it?

  7. Once. A guy was going around collecting money for charity. Only realized later that he had scammed me $50. It wasn’t much, so I let it go, but I still remember that something didn’t add up while I was talking with him, but I didn’t want to think badly about someone supposedly working for a charity. Only realized it later when the check went into a personal bank account instead of an organization’s account.

  8. Jan Jasper

    I am so glad to read the cautionary tales from Ksbeth and Caitlin. I am trying to met men online, and I thought the financial scammers were all the obvious ones with the fake profiles and canned, nearly identical messages. It had not occurred to me they are not all operating out of calling centers in Nigeria, it could be a real person who sounds interesting, he reads a woman’s profile and messages carefully, and h e cleverly figures out what her weak spots are. It just dawned on me that a man who approached me recently was likely a financial scam artist. I replied to his first message to tell him briefly that I’d been through a break-up and was just on the dating site window-shopping, that I was not ready to meet anyone. (I actually responded that way to a few men, most of whom respected my wishes, they wrote things like “Good luck with your recovery” and did not approach me again.) But this man began a huge campaign to meet me, He sent me messages calling me “Sweetie” and “honey” and he sent lots of XXOXOX kisses. He told me my ex -boyfriend already had someone new, etc. Finally I had to block him. I just now had a “whew!” feeling. I’d assumed he thought I’d be easy to get into bed, but I now think he was likely trying to set me up to get money from me. I thought I was careful enough, but thanks to you folks posting here, I now know that I need to be more guarded.

    1. RED FLAG!

      Anything that quick is not cool.

      The guy who conned me did exactly this; was professing his eternal love (and marriage proposals) within weeks. UGH. Are you kidding me? (And yet Chicago women he scammed were only too eager to agree, plan a wedding and show off the CZ (“diamond”) he had bought for her (likely using a stolen credit card.)

      My favorite moment was — after months of I LOVE YOU, in writing and emails and verbally — I discover he has: 1) opened my mail; 2) activated a new credit card in my apartment in MY Name; 3) started using it while forging my signature…etc.

      When I finally confronted him, his 3 words changed quite quickly to:

      It’s not provable.

      Yup. You do not want to end up in a screenplay.

      Here’s another one…

  9. Sounds like narcissistic abuse to me. A supposed friend scammed me about her intentions regarding a business partnership. Too complicated to go into too much detail. It was an expensive lesson financially and emotionally, and underscored the need to read the signs, listen to my gut and walk away when something doesn’t feel right. And I wasn’t the first victim (nor the last. 😕)

    1. So sorry!

      One of the many effective tools these grifters use is to make us feel ashamed and weird and guilty and implicated by our own very human desires — to get ahead, to make more money, to be in love. Then we feel STUPID and think we must only be people this gullible, when they have plenty of victims.

      1. As difficult as the experience was I learned a lot from it. It prepared me for a death in the family a few months later which is when I saw that particular person for who they were. The original toxic influence. I always look for silver linings and that was one of them.

        As for the “friend,” I can only hope that one day she meets her match before too many others innocents get hurt.

      2. It is indeed a painful and powerful learning experience — mine taught me to be much more cautious about how certain appearances and behaviors are attractive to me.

        It also showed me, more painfully, that the police and district attorneys are only interested in winnable cases — I learned the phrase “prosecutorial discretion” meaning (?!) they don’t have to take on a case, and how vulnerable that can leave us.

        Life changing.

  10. Oh, wow. You are so lucky you met the cop and the damage didn’t go even deeper. Kismet, I think. We were scammed out of several thousand by a contractor when we were new homeowners and oh-so-green. It was the worst feeling. And got the same reaction you did when we tried to report it. At what point did the people who are supposed to care stop caring?

    1. Even less likely…The con man and I were to have gone on a date with my friend G; he and I had a fight and he stood us up (I later found out he was busy trying to use my stolen credit card to get a $$$$ hotel room for himself; typical of his MO…) So G called an accountant who wanted to date HER and when the 3 of us went out that night instead and I described to him some of the con man’s behaviors (esp. regarding a tax statement he showed me), the accountant gently said “Those can be faked.”

      How would I have known that????? So the accountant (thank God) knew the NYPD detective who met me the very next day for a VERY long afternoon de-briefing….then said, gently, “I think you’re in some serious trouble.” And so I was.

      They couldn’t care less — to them “it’s only money.”

      My memoir title —- Exhausted Angel. Because so many times I have been lucky enough to avoid the worst case scenario…

  11. I’ve never been scammed. Probably because I’m at skeptic. I also have that look of ‘I can’t be bothered.’ Lonely people, the elderly and starving artists are prey for scammers. It’s sad there are these type of people in the world, the scammers, I mean.

    1. It’s more than that…although I am glad you have not been hit on this way.

      It’s also a question of how skilled and persuasive these people can be — the NYPD cop I hired to suss mine out warned me that X was so skilled a liar that, even if we got him into court, all he would do is lie again and make ME look like a liar and a fool.

      It also means being, I think, not only lonely but feeling insecure and socially isolated — not having enough people to turn to to say “What’s going on here?????” I was pissed when my so-called smart friend (an Ivy educated psychologist) couldn’t even see the game he was playing. All she did see, at the end, was what a total mental mess he had left me.

      That was some damage.

      1. I realized that “my” con man was bilking multiple women at once — using stolen credit cards — and that the banks didn’t care and the credit card companies didn’t care and the victims were too scared or embarrassed to get him arrested.

        Bingo! What a life.

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