Images by Marta Parszeniew
Until last weekend, Brooks Newmark was just your average Conservative (or Tory) member of the British parliament. Face like foie gras? Check. Job title no one really understands? Check. But then the minister for Civil Society was forced to resign from the government due to a classic tabloid sleaze sting.
His crime? Being flattered into embarrassing himself on the internet by an attractive young woman who didn't exist. As you may have read, someone at The Sunday Mirror decided to invent an imaginary "Tory PR girl" called Sophie Wittams, pinching their picture from a Swedish model. Wittams would occasionally tweet to tell some junior minister how much she admired their strong stand on knife crime, or how sexy she found Prime Minister David Cameron’s rubbery jawline, and gradually the Conservative men started circling.
At some point, Newmark and Wittams got talking and the member of parliament (MP) was sent a nudie shot. In response, the father-of-five apparently “sent explicit photos of himself wearing paisley pyjamas” to her–or, as the world now knows, to the freelance hack cowering in anonymity behind the fake Twitter account. And that was the end of Brooks Newmark's political career.
Yet Newmark is by no means the first to fail this latter-day Turing test. All over Britain, people are having imaginary relationships with photos and lies, caught up in newspaper stings, classic catfish schemes, mutated 419 scams and Chatroulette blackmail jobs. In one case that concluded last month, six Nigerian fraudsters were convicted of conning nine women out of about $350,000 after posing as a slightly psychotic-sounding Casanova heir named "James Richards" on match.com.
So, while most guides to romance concentrate on personal grooming, gifts, and what to do to which parts of whose genitals, I decided to answer the burning question: How do you know if your lover is real?
James Richards's fake passport. The man pictured has absolutely nothing to do wtih the trial.
1) ARE THE NAMES ON THEIR PASSPORT ARRANGED THE RIGHT WAY?
I've already talked about James Richards, match.com's wholly imaginary figment of burning priapic lust. Via an elaborate chain of documents and photos, the fraudsters' plot was established: Richards' dad had just died, leaving him $162 million, but—due to complex political reasons—he could only possibly access it with the help of a woman he'd seduced on a dating website.
When Richards asked his various online flames to wire him the money he needed to be reunited with this vast fortune, he sent a copy of his passport as proof of identity. Confusingly, instead of "James Richards," the name on the document read "Richard James." James Richards is a man who doesn't exist. Richard James is Aphex Twin.
Oddly, none of the women involved in the match.com scam noticed that the first and last names of James Richards's passport had been switched. This should be the first warning sign. While the UK government is capable of losing the personal details of millions of people, it is usually really, really good at getting your first name and last name arranged the right way round on your passport.
2) ARE THERE LOTS OF PEOPLE WHO LOOK EXACTLY LIKE YOUR LOVER ON THE SAME DATING WEBSITE?
Yuliana Avalos was part of a "huge" group of actors, military personnel and Facebook users that filed a $1.5 million awsuit against match.com late last year. She did so after allegedly finding more than 200 profiles on the site using her picture. She accuses the site of knowingly approving false profiles for spammers in order to make their pool of users as vast as possible.
So, if you ever find yourself scouring the internet for a soul who can bear to share the night air with you, make sure they don't seem to have the exact same physical features, clothes and holiday photo selection as another human being.
If they do, it is likely that one or both of these people—or all 200 of them—do not exist.
3) IS YOUR LOVER’S NAKED BODY DIFFERENT FROM THE ONE WHERE THEIR FACE IS VISIBLE?
Eventually, the chats between Brooks Newmark and his imaginary new sex friend went graphic. This posed a problem. Unhelpfully, the Swedish model in Wittam's Twitter picture hadn't uploaded any naked photos of herself for journalists to steal and dupe politicians with. Undeterred, the journalist behind the sting found nude pics of totally different girls, and sent them to Newmark over WhatsApp. He then wrote back: “You took my breath away! I will send you something in return—that way we each have a secret.” Then he was completely fucked.
The Wittams Twitter account also used the image of another woman sunbathing topless. Twenty-six-year-old Charlene Tyler has since been traced, and seems to have a rather lighthearted take on the unsolicited recycling of her bronzed boobs: “I think grown adults can do whatever they like as long as both of them are over the age of consent. I don't think it's something to resign over. I hope the MP is OK. It makes me feel really awful that this will ruin his life. The fact that a newspaper was stealing my photo is quite wrong. The newspaper’s taken it too far.” Remember: if the tits on the box don’t match the tits in the box, something is wrong.
4) DOES YOUR LOVER TREAT FLIRTING LIKE A TEXT ADVENTURE GAME?
Text adventure games are great. You face east. You see a large wooden door. You walk towards the door. You pick up a remote control. You must imagine yourself being burnt to death by a dragon. Who wouldn’t want to enjoy the thrill of that? But when your love life starts to resemble one of these escapades, things can quickly take a turn for the sticky.
We hear a lot about the "gamification of dating" inherent in things like Tinder. By engaging in James Richards’s continuing quest to "secure an inheritance," his nine victims were essentially taking part in something just a level up from that. Every so often, Richards would drip-feed them updates on his situation, which we now know were entirely fabricated.
The trail of documentation expanded as Richards worked his way through the narrative stages. The passport. The solicitor’s letters. The Indian affidavit guaranteeing the cash but misspelling "pounds sterling" as "pounds starling." You take the affidavit. You are in a room. You are facing east. Behind the desk an Indian bank manager is withholding the money until he receives his fee. Press (a) to pay the fee. Press (b) to walk away forever from a rare beacon of reciprocal love. Not a great game, all told.
5) DOES YOUR LOVER PERSISTENTLY USE ODD WORDS LIKE "THUNDERING?"
One email in the James Richards case, reproduced to many of the same women, became known to the court as "the thundering email", mentioning, as it did, “The love thundering in our hearts that only we can understand…”
This is fine in itself. I’m sure even Keats got a bit carried away sometimes and described his love as "a flock of marzipan egrets flying into a cloud of butt sexy sherbet," or whatever, and then thought better of it after he’d pressed send. Once or twice can be dismissed as drunken flamboyance. But if it persists, it is highly probable that your online lover is a handful of Nigerian men living on the outskirts of Portsmouth.
“I love your generous kindness to me. I love your eye and lips, your sense of self-love. I want to be with you now."
“I feel like a complete man. The thought of your hands on my body, particularly when you hold me when I am sleeping.”
Be wary of purple prose like this. It's unlikely that you deserve it.
6) DOES YOUR LOVER DO VERY LITTLE EXCEPT WAVE, BLOW KISSES, REVEAL THEIR GENITALS, AND ENCOURAGE YOU TO MASTURBATE?
We all enjoy a lover who waves, blows kisses, reveals their privates and encourages one to jerk off. Masturbation is natural and healthy. Kisses are intimate gestures. An ass can be visually stimulating. But sometimes things that are too good to be true are just that. And a relationship—a real adult one—should be based on more than this, even if it is just a mutual hatred of some techno song.
In recent times, a second great social media sex scam has joined the mutated 419s described above. It involves meeting an attractive female stranger on Chatroulette. She then waves, blows kisses, makes banal emoticon-based conversation via the text box, reveals her ass, and encourages you to jerk off. This is somewhat dishonest of her, as, after excavating the darkest sexual tunnels of your psyche through your keyboard and relieving yourself into your monitor, your screen fills with a Moldovan gangster’s face and he tells you that he's going to send this video to all of your Facebook contacts if you don’t pay him a couple of grand. That sounds fucking terrifying.
This is well-documented in forums, and there are already crude-woman simulators commercially available that enable you to joystick this pre-programmed woman's actions, from "she types" to "flashes tits."
The method might be relatively new but the lesson remains the same: There are evil people everywhere and most of them are on the internet, just waiting to break your heart.