April 28, 2015, 22:30
Mark says: “It’s lunchtime, I have really missed you today… I keep looking at your photos on my phone, the wonderful flutters I get in the pit of my stomach when I read your emails, the tender encouraging words you give, it’s become a habit now.”
Margaret (not her real name) had heard of internet scams before – sad stories where women met men on online dating sites, flew to the other side of the world to meet them, then suddenly found themselves in deep trouble.
She considers herself well-educated, successful and most importantly, tech savvy. She knew better than to give her bank PIN number to anyone and ignored the Nigerian lottery hoaxes that arrived in her email inbox.
How could she then give $100,000 to a man she had never met?
A man she has now learned doesn’t even exist?
“Normally, I’m a sane person, but this makes me look insane,” she confides. “I don’t know why on earth I got wrapped up in this. This man came into my life when I was feeling disillusioned, and while I have wonderful family and friends, I was a bit lost. He showed me affection and I fell into the trap."
In March last year, Margaret, who is in her sixties, received a Facebook message from a man called Mark Grant from Tallinn in Estonia asking if he could email her. She was used to communicating with different kinds of people through her work, so she couldn’t see the harm in giving him her email address.
Soon, communication with the handsome architect, who said he was widowed and had an 11-year-old son, was over the phone using the free calling application WhatsApp and the pair were talking daily.
“We talked about ordinary things, such as our Christian faith, what he was cooking for dinner, where he went to church,” she explains. “He’d always text me or ring me to say he was home from work.”
By April, Mark was professing his deep love for Margaret. He would send up to three emails a day telling her over and over that he loved and missed her, and that he wanted her to be his wife.
Margaret agreed to visit him and booked flights to Estonia for September, using the street address he gave her. Meanwhile, Mark had told her he was off to London. His company was vying for a contract to build a stadium in South Africa.
He sent Margaret a copy of his ticket to London, a photograph of him at Tallinn Airport and, when he eventually won the contract, he sent the Certificate of Approval from the Republic of South Africa’s Ministry of Sport.
But while Mark told Margaret he was set to be paid $6 million out of the $12m contract, things started to go terribly wrong when he arrived in South Africa to begin the construction. He lost his wallet with all his ATM cards in a taxi and his bank in Estonia was refusing to send him replacements.
Then in July, he phoned Margaret telling her he was in hospital being monitored for high blood pressure. A crane had tipped over at the construction site, narrowly missing him, and killing two of his workers – the police were demanding he pay for their funerals. He appealed to Margaret to lend him the money, so using Western Union, she sent him $11,000.
“It had been five months since I met him online and I got swept away with this developing relationship.
“I had grown to trust him,” she tells. “I never doubted he would pay me back.”
But then more requests followed.
Mark needed $7000 to repair the crane, then another $7000 for a new part. Margaret sent even more money for 50 extra chairs for the stadium and his accommodation and food. As the construction drew to an end, Mark came up with a number of excuses as to why he couldn’t return home.
“I started to feel very uncomfortable and stopped taking his calls, but he phoned me 20 times and when I answered, he was crying, saying I’d abandoned him,” Margaret tells.
“At first, his story seemed plausible but then it just got more ludicrous – his passport was being held by the hospital unless he paid them back and a priest of the Estonian church was helping him pay for that. Then when he got his passport back, he told me the doctor who had to sign it off had gone on holiday. After that, he said the workers had surrounded his apartment and wouldn’t let him leave because he hadn’t fully paid them.”
By Christmas, Margaret had given the man she believed to be Mark Grant $100,000. She booked a number of flights back to Estonia under the name Mark Grant but he always came up with an excuse as to why he couldn’t board it.
Then he gave her another name, telling her he’d acquired a fake Nigerian passport and asking her to book a ticket for Ese Obasogie Omorodion to Lagos. The Nigerian factor, and the fact that a man by this name did indeed make that flight, set off alarm bells for Margaret, who believes this is the true name of the man she had been speaking with for 14 months.
An investigation by the Weekly uncovered some startling truths.
The photographs Margaret was sent of Mark Grant were traced to a Facebook account of a man from Iceland. The picture of the stadium is actually one in south Poland, built by a German contractor in 2010. And the address Mark gave her in Estonia doesn’t exist.
Even though Margaret had her suspicions for quite some time, after more than a year of talking with this man, she’s still under his spell.
“I actually feel like a bit of a traitor for talking to you and I don’t know why!” she reveals. “It’s like he had me under some kind of control. It wasn’t undying love, but deep concern. I was afraid he’d die and I believed that somehow I would have caused that.”
Margaret kept her relationship a secret from her family. As it is now certain she’s been a victim of fraud, she’s terrified that she will lose the respect of her children if they ever find out. Recently, though, she confided in her brother, who was just relieved she had not travelled to Estonia.
Margaret is still in contact with this man, hoping an authority somewhere can arrest him and recover some of her money.
Sadly, internet safety organisation NetSafe says there is very little that can be done because he’s outside of New Zealand.
Margaret says losing the money that was going towards her retirement is bad enough but the worst part is how she’s been left feeling about herself. While she was always a very generous person, she’s become more introverted and sceptical.
“I’m stunned by my own actions and that I didn’t wake up sooner,” she tells. “I had this voice inside telling me something wasn’t right but I pushed it aside and ignored it, hoping this man was who he said he was.”
Margaret says she’ll continue to keep her secret but wants to share her story so that no one else falls prey to scammers.
“If I could be hoodwinked, there must be a lot of other people who get dragged into this. People need to wake up and realise that despite what they tell you, these people are not real,” she says. “I just want my story to be a warning for everyone – about how far these scammers will go.”
Words: Anastasia Hedge