Several months after my divorce, I decided I was ready to date.
Since I hadn’t had luck meeting any dateable men at the grocery store or any other routine stop, I followed friends’ recommendations and created a profile on a dating website.
Over the next six months, I went on dates with twelve men. Some lasted one date, others made it a few weeks, and almost all of my experiences were overwhelmingly positive. But there was one man who was not all he claimed to be, and if I hadn’t listened to my intuition, he could have changed the course of my life.
When I first encountered Shawn, I was not impressed.
I remember seeing his profile picture and dismissing him on sight alone – a stoic, bald man sporting sunglasses and facial hair on top of a well-muscled bouncer-esque body. Not my type. Then his first message arrived in my inbox, a simple “Hi, I’m Shawn.”
I politely replied, “Hi Shawn. I’m Amanda. Nice to meet you. Any fun plans for this weekend?” And so began weeks of email exchanges. I learned he was smart and funny, interested in what I had to say, willing to play my get-to-know-you games.
He said he had an extensive military and law enforcement background (Police officer turned Marine after 9/11, enlisted in the Navy after his stint in the Marines, became a Navy SEAL, and then spent a few years working for a non-profit extraditing kidnapped children from around the world, finally moving back home and working undercover narcotics for the Department of Immigration and Customs).
This was impressive, but not what was important to me.
I liked how we both believed that small details mattered; Shawn never thought I was crazy for needing to know his favorite breakfast cereal, how old he was when he broke his first bone, and who he took to his senior prom.
Our email conversations moved to text and it wasn’t long before we decided to meet to see if we had chemistry in person.
We decided to go hiking for our first date. Shawn knew of a great spot about an hour away; there were always a lot of people around so I wouldn’t feel like he was luring me somewhere to be alone. Would I want him to pick me up, he asked, or would I prefer to meet him?
After some deliberation I decided to let him pick me up at my house; normally I don’t tell strangers where I live, but my ex-husband was moving his belongings out of my house that day and I figured that if I disappeared, he’d both notice who I had gone off with and care enough to try to get me back so I can continue to mother his children.
Shawn arrived to pick me up; I hopped into the car, introduced myself, and stated, “My mom says I should never ride in cars with strange men.”
A little surprised at my opening line, but not daunted, he replied, “Your mom’s a smart woman.”
“She also says I should carry pepper spray in my pocket when I go on dates.”
“Do you have pepper spray in your pocket?” he wondered.
“I hope you don’t have to find out,” I countered. And with that, we had broken the ice. I found Shawn and I had a great rapport from the start, and we talked the entire drive. There were no awkward silences that I felt the need to fill with compulsive chatter. I talked about myself, Shawn talked about himself, and we were at our destination before I knew it.
Shawn was right about the location: it was a nice, easy hike along a beautiful waterfall. I felt that Shawn and I were really getting to know each other, and that we had a lot in common, including similar dreams for the future. Our hike led into a late lunch, which led into a couple of hours walking around a park, looking at both the beautiful rose gardens and the high school couples who were gathering there for pre-prom photos.
Shawn casually told me that his daughter had her prom the following week. “What color is her dress?” I asked. He said he’d have to tell me later – he couldn’t remember – but said he was looking forward to seeing her off to prom.
On the drive home, Shawn asked if I had some time the next day, saying he’d love to take me to a movie. We made definitive plans, and when he dropped me off at home, I had stars in my eyes.
I thought Shawn was wonderful, but wanted to learn even more about him, so the next morning I decided to do a little sleuthing. I typically Google people before I go out with them, but Shawn didn’t have much of an online presence. I pulled up his Facebook profile – he didn’t have much that was available for public viewing – and then linked through to his ex-wife and daughter, just out of curiosity.
The first thing I noticed was that his daughter’s profile picture showed her all decked out in prom finery. I thought it was a little strange since Shawn had told me her prom was next week, but I chalked it up to his not being as involved a dad as he claimed to be, and trying to make a better impression. I wasn’t concerned; I filed it away to think about later.
Our movie date went great. Shawn held my hand in the theater and spent nearly as much time watching me as he did the movie. I reveled in the butterflies in my stomach, especially near the end of the film as I met his eyes and let him kiss me.It didn’t even bother me that a thunderstorm had moved in while we were in the theater.
When it was time to go, a torrential downpour stood between us and his car.
Shawn offered to bring the car around to pick me up, but when I responded with a simple, “I’m not going to melt!” he grabbed my hand and we made a run for it through the rain, splashing in puddles, all the way to the far end of the lot where he had parked. We sloshed into the car, laughing so hard we looked ridiculous. In that moment, I knew I was a goner!
The week that followed was wonderful: I saw Shawn a couple of more times, and when we weren’t together in person, we texted and spoke on the phone for hours.
Then the first red flag flew my way…
It was Saturday, one week after our great hiking date, the day of his daughter’s prom. He sent me a text that he was seeing his daughter off to her dance, and included a couple of snapshots of her.
I noticed several things immediately: she was wearing the same dress as her Facebook picture, with the same date, with the same group of friends. He didn’t send me a father-daughter picture, and it appeared he had copied and pasted from her profile page. Even though something about it didn’t sit right with me; I never mentioned it.
The next week, Shawn had to travel for business. He told me there was some anticipated action near the Mexican border that related to a narcotics case he was working on here, but he hoped it would only take a couple of days.
I assumed he would be busy the entire time, but he found quiet moments to send me sweet texts and pictures of where he was so I’d still feel connected. He even had the most beautiful bouquet of flowers delivered. I couldn’t believe that even though he was off playing hero he was still thinking about me back home.
When Shawn returned home, we planned a night in at my house – I grilled some steaks and we watched a movie he had wanted to see. The movie was based on a true story of some Navy SEALS in Afghanistan. I was surprised he wanted to watch a movie so closely related to something he never wanted to talk about (he was reluctant to discuss his military background), I was happy he wanted to share more of his life with me. And then he made his first big mistake. When the opening reel showed SEALS going through the hardest week of training, Shawn said he remembered and hated Hell Week. It came the first week of SEAL training.
I’ve never been in the military, but even I know Hell Week isn’t week one. I knew right then and there that something was off.
I realized there were many more red flags that I had dismissed.
Shawn’s career timeline didn’t add up (though it wasn’t important to me at first because I was interested in him, not his career), he wouldn’t let me see where he lived (he claimed it was in a bad part of town and he was embarrassed for me to go there), he said he almost didn’t get a ticket to his daughter’s graduation (parents always get first priority).
I needed answers, so I made a few calls.
I called the police department where he claimed to have gotten his start. No record of him. I contacted a gentleman online who searches SEAL records. No record of him. I called Immigration and Customs to verify that he worked for them. Nothing could have prepared me for the response.
Within an hour, I received a call back from Homeland Security. “Yeah, we know about this guy,” the agent said. “He has a history of impersonating a federal officer. Has he asked you for money?”
The man that I had been dating was nothing more than a con artist.
According to the agent, he meets women online, impresses them with his resume, sweet talks them, moves in, and then makes off with their property.
Fortunately for me I learned all of this before he had a chance to swindle me. I was able to make an excuse to why I needed to cancel our plans that night, and he hasn’t called me since. I think he caught on that I was getting suspicious, and decided to ride off into the sunset before we had an ugly encounter.
At the urging of the Homeland Security agent, I reported the encounter to my local police department; in case he turned out to be dangerous (the agent wasn’t sure), they would have us on their radar. I got a lecture about online safety from the local officer, and instructions to read Gavin de Becker’s The Gift of Fear.
De Becker asserts that there are different signals of intuition that can get our attention: fear, apprehension, suspicion, hesitation, doubt, gut feelings, hunches, curiosity, anxiety, wonder, humor, persistent thoughts, and nagging feelings.
If we listen to these signals, we will know if something is amiss, and how seriously we should consider and act in the situation. Shawn’s red flags began near the beginning, as he expounded his background so nonchalantly.
I was curious as to how all of his adventures had been possible, but I didn’t listen to my curiosity to solve the puzzle until I realized how many other pieces were out of place. One at a time, all of the red flags were easily dismissible, but together they added up to a giant deception.
I learned some valuable lessons: Most importantly to listen to my gut when something’s amiss.
As I’ve shared my story, every man has seen right through his military claims and wondered how I was fooled.
The simple answer is that I didn’t care about his occupation; I cared about the kind of person he was being. It was the lies about his daughter that were the biggest red flags for me. I should have asked about them.
Perhaps the answers were easily explainable, though clearly it was a sign of a larger issue. I learned it’s okay to ask questions, and I did so in a non-confrontational manner. When I wanted clarification about his resume, I joked that he’d have to make me a timeline so I could put the pieces together. We never seemed to have the time to do this, and I never pushed. I suppose I was listening to my gut feeling that something was amiss.
I learned that I’m smart enough and brave enough to verify information.
When I related this story to my coworker, he stopped me. “You called immigration and customs? No one would have ever expected you to do that!” But I did do it, and I learned the truth I needed to keep myself safe. It is always better to be safe than sorry.
My story is in no way unique; women meet men online every day who are not the people they claim to be. I have a happier ending than most. I spent several weeks with a charming sweet talker who took me places I’d never have gone, fed me great food, and sent me the most perfect bouquet of flowers I’ve ever received. All it cost me was a steak and a movie, and now I have a great story to tell.
If you’ve ever tried online dating with hope in your heart only to have that hope mutilated and squashed by jerks and rejection, then you already know it’s time for a change.
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