I wrote the following in 2018 and swore that I’d never give it away. It seemed too good to waste. At the time, I had ambitions for it. Perhaps somebody might pay to publish it. Perhaps it could get me through one of those doors that I’d heard about but for which I didn’t even have a postal address. None of that happened so it’s here. If you’ve followed me for long enough, you might remember Mary. This is a true story. I think…
“Hello. How are you doing and how is life treating you over there?”
It began so innocuously with a private message on Twitter and me being open to some mischief. I replied “terribly” to which my new friend was immediately sympathetic.
“Oh that very sorry to hear,” she said but I was not sure she was. I wasn’t even sure “she” was a she. In some run-down operation in St Petersburg, some large hairy Russian guy was probably deciding I was exactly the kind of man he was looking for.
Mary Hester doesn’t exist so I have no qualms about using her (or his) “real” name. Find her profile on Twitter and you’ll notice the only element that hints towards her true purpose is her username which follows the standard bot format of using a name followed by eight digits. She says she is “Christian, single , and I try to treat people the way I want them to treat me!” She finishes it off with the hashtag of the American right (“#maga”) and the Stars and Stripes. In short: she’s a good, upstanding American girl who believes in God.
“I’ve done some domestic activities at home and going to church later in the day,” she told me. “Are you single or married?”
I’d already decided I’d be anything she wanted me to be. “I’ve been single for 12 years,” I lied. “My wife left me after I had my accident.”
I’d hoped she’d ask me about my “accident” which my imagination was already weaving into a mildly comic tale involving a vintage Morris Minor, three types of cheese, and the ex-English fast bowler Angus Fraser.
“Thats sound sucks,” is what she said. “Sorry to hear that and that very bad her.”
This was notable at the beginning that she ignored the provocative things I’d say. I was also certain that she wasn’t a native English speaker. She was, however, clearly into her religion.
“I do go to church punctually and love listening to the word of God and love to be educated spiritually about God and have a strong feeling about the love of God on my heart. I also go to weekly services when am free.”
That’s when she sent me a picture of herself wearing a sexy sailor’s uniform and started to call me “babe”.
The photograph was easily sourced back to the original; in this case, to the Twitter account of a star of French erotica. I won’t say more except that the sailor suit with bare midriff is one of the more conservative outfits. Yet, at this stage, I still didn’t quite know the ultimate purpose of our conversation. I began weaving some silly story, explaining how I was a carpenter and had suffered a nasty gash whilst decorating a bird box with an ornamental thrush. I hinted towards impotence as the reason why my wife subsequently left me for “a cough syrup salesman who, ironically, couldn’t cure her smoker’s cough”…
No response. Mary just returned with her own sad little tale. “Oh that very bad. Well, I’ve been hurt a lot in my past and I don’t want that any more in my life. My ex husband is a liar he lied to me that he will never cheat on me but I later know he’s dating one of my best friend called Julian. I’ve been single for the past 12 month. Now do you now see I need a right man?’
I did indeed see. I saw the strange detail about her husband running away with a chap called Julian. There’s clearly a clever twist in the script they follow that uses culturally liberal attitudes towards homosexuality to establish a deeper connection with men who might feel alienated, sympathetic to #MAGA, and unsympathetic to Julian. At this point I was fairly certain I knew what would come next and I started to throw myself into a role that would make me very attractive to a woman like Mary. I would be a very rich Englishman. I would have staff to help me. I would also become Terry Thomas.
“Oh, I say!” I said. “That’s terribly poor. What a rotter! I would have jolly well given him a good thrashing if he’d done that to me. It makes me cross to hear that!”
And thus the pattern was established. She would call me “babe” and I would play Terry Thomas.
For the next seven hours…
Whoever they are, these scammers have more stamina than me. Mary rarely flagged as I struggled to maintain my wealthy narrative. Soon she suggested we move over to Google Hangouts. I wasn’t so invested in the conversation that I wanted to do either. Instead, I explained that my chauffeur usually sets up my computer and he was out taking my parrot to have its claws snipped. That’s when she proposed I send a picture of myself with my parrot. That was when I realised I’d made a mistake by embroidering my tale a little too lushly. I now faced a parrot deficit.
That’s when my friend John on Twitter reminded me of the photographs I’d taken a few weeks earlier at my local flea market. An old chap had been walking around the market carrying a live parrot on his shoulder. Suddenly I had a way forward. I sent Mary the picture of the old man with a parrot and she accepted my reality without further questions. I was suddenly “handsome” and every exchange was soft and cuddly and ended with a “babe”.
I was soon in my stride. I told her she should come over to the UK and enjoy Chester Zoo where they’d just named the Marsupial Hut after me. I explained how I wanted to find a woman with a good sense of humour and passion for old Norwegian folk music and the films of Russell Crowe, after whom I’d name my parrot. I kept adding surreal detail on top of nonsensical banter. None of which seemed to bother Mary in the slightest.
“That’s nice,” she said. “I am looking for the essentials in a man. Honesty, loyalty, commitment, compassion, but above all else I seek individuality. That one man who can touch my heart.”
I said I was that man.
“What sort of relationship you seek for?” she asked.
I seek for “a happy one,” I replied. “And a wife who won’t run away with the cough syrup salesman.”
That’s when she mentioned she was 29 and hoped her age didn’t bother me. Naturally, it didn’t.
“I will like to call you today but my phone is very old and faulty,” explained my darling Mary, aged 29. “I’m chatting you with my granny’s computer also and the internet connection will be going offline in the next 3 hours. Please can you help me to get a $50 iTunes card from the store to pay for the internet bill because I don’t want to loose talking to you babe.”
When a man hears a tragic tale like that, he naturally rushes to action. I made fresh coffee and started to look for spent iTunes cards that I could Photoshop. Luckily, my friend Becky was online and quickly provided me with high-resolution images of an old card. The task wasn’t made easier by Mary who was now sending me provocative messages.
“I will appreciate if you can get me the card,” she said, “and I promise to do anything to make you happy handsome”.
With such an offer, I felt bad sending her the first picture. Mary couldn’t read the numbers. I apologized and blamed the nonexistent camera on my nonexistent Nokia phone. The truth was that I’d reduced the size of the image to a point where I knew the numbers were unreadable.
Mary was soon back with a suggestion.
“Please put it on your lap and let me get a clearer pic of the card babe,” she said.
“Do you want me to keep my trousers on or take them off?” I asked.
“I want you to place the card with your trousers on and take a clean picture of the card baby.”
Disappointed, I put my trousers back on and carried on Photoshopping the next image.
This time I annoyed her by photographing the wrong side of the card. This crisis was averted when I sent her the numbered side, for which I received another picture of the sailor’s costume. This time she seemed to have injured her finger since she had it in her mouth.
I asked Mary if her finger was okay.
“Yea my fingers are good babe,” said Mary, now creepier than ever as she explained how she still couldn’t read the numbers. It was more likely that she had tried them and discovered they were invalid. My friend Becky had used the cards last Christmas. There followed another hour of chit chat as I rushed to finish the next photo.
By late afternoon, the game was nearly up when Mary noticed that the card in the pictures had changed. She had asked for a £50 card but I’d forgotten to remove the value from the card I’d Photoshopped. It said £25.
“This card looks different to the other you sent me before baby,” she said.
It was an amateur mistake I attributed to tiredness yet, quick as a flash, I answered. “Yes. I bought two cards. Two times £25 is £50.”
I was particularly pleased because I’d just managed to double the agony I knew Mary would feel. She now faced getting the old duffer with the parrot and dodgy Nokia to photograph two cards instead of one. This agony could go on for hours, which it did as I began to describe my dinner and the full social diary that was now getting in the way of my being able to photograph the cards.
“Well guess you are playing around with my feelings,” said Mary as we moved into the early evening shift. I felt a little sore on that point. It was strange to discover that even if you know you’re being scammed, you also find yourself wanting to help the other person. I’d been talking to Mary for longer than I’d spoken to many people on the internet. She was rapidly becoming a friend.
And then, just like that, it was over.
“The card is invalid,” said Mary one last time. Then she was gone.
Around 7 pm, I lamented losing my Mary on my Twitter account. Since about 11 am that morning, I’d been openly talking about Mary in my timeline. If Mary has bothered, she would have seen pictures of the sailor costume and me admitting to Photoshopping the iTunes card. I even cc’d Russell Crowe into the bit where we got talking about parrots (he never replied).
Yet with Mary gone, I could now relax and reflect on strange it was that some people will have worked less hard for a day’s wage than I’d worked trying to scam a scammer. I was also hugely relieved it was over.
Or was it? Next morning, she was back tempting me with more pictures of French porn stars. “Are you still there, handsome?” (Handsome! Remember that all of this is to the old chap I’d photographed walking his pet parrot around the local market. ) “I’ll not send any of my pic until you send me yours too babe.”
“I managed to buy another iTunes card this morning,” I lied, “but I’m afraid I could only get one valued at £100.”
She was back quicker than you could poke yourself in the eye. “Could you please take a clean shot of the card so that I can see it and use it for my minutes?”
“Of course,” I returned, “but £100 is a lot of money when you only needed $50…”
She didn’t follow my meaning so I explained my plan. “If you bought one for $50 and sent me a picture of that, I can redeem that one and you can have this one worth £100.”
“What are you talking about sweetie?”
I explained it again. I wanted her to buy a $50 card so I could get some of the money back on the one I’d bought for £100. The suggestion, however, did not go down well. Mary did not like the idea of being scammed, even by a handsome “babe” on the internet.
“Just send me the one you got now,” she snapped.
“Okay. But do you promise to send me a photo?”
She was desperate. “Yes baby. I will send you a photo of me.”
Perfect. I’d already decided to end this game and she had just presented me with the lead-in to the line I’d been hoping to use.
“If you do send a picture, will you promise to send me this one?” I asked and proceeded to send her a photo of the French erotic dancer looking busty in leather.
“Or this one?” I said and posted another picture of the woman in some strange Return of the Jedi style thong. “But I don’t want any of the other pictures because I don’t think Jesus would like you doing that. Does your granny know that you like to show your private parts to strangers on the internet?”
To which Mary said “Ok”.
I’d hoped for some anger. I wanted some hostility, referencing my virility, and, ideally, my a parrot. What I didn’t expect is what happened next.
“Send me the iTunes card,” she said as though everything that had just happened hadn’t happened. I just stared at the screen as she continued in the same vein. “Why does it has to take you so much longer to send just a picture?”
Slightly forlorn, I said I would send the card immediately. I then went out and spent my morning doing the week’s shopping. When I got back, Mary had left one last message.
“I don’t believe you anymore because its seems you are just playing games with me.”
And it was true. I had been playing games. And I did feel awful.
Feeling bad is the nature of these scams and the nature of the script behind them. They play these games to the absolute end, chasing the tiniest percentage chance that somehow someone will feel bad enough to fall for the lies. I don’t know how many conversations “Mary” was having concurrently with other people who “bought” into her story. I guess a tiny number hand over iTunes pin numbers but I don’t know why they fall for it. Perhaps they don’t. Perhaps, even as they disbelieve, they want to believe.
The strangest part of this is that, at times, even I started to believe in Mary. When I talk about Mary now, I think of the face of that French porn star even though I know she’s not Mary. When Mary called me “babe” there was something seductive in it, even as it appalled me. I can see why it works. It’s not even the saucy photos that keep the scam going. I expect if I had paid the $50 that she would have come back asking for another $50 in exchange for increasingly revealing photos (and, believe me, there’s plenty of material should they need to use it). Yet the photos don’t explain it. It’s the sense of a real person at the other end of a conversation, encouraging you to just part with a little cash to keep the friendship going.
Such scams might say a lot about the desperation of people in poorer countries but they say so much more about the internet as a social phenomenon and of individuals becoming part of something greater in which they remain uniquely alone. It also says something about the state of our own society and the kinds of loneliness within it.