Portrait of a Love Scam Experience

In 2008 Christina O'Reilly lost $8,000 to a Nigerian love scam. Since then she’s been depicting the experience through oil paintings and watercolours. We talked about her art, and how to avoid a swindling.

All images courtesy of the artist

It was 2008 when Christina O'Reilly was scammed. She was 14 months single and looking for romance on the reputable dating site rsvp.com.au. Pretty soon she found a nice guy living in Sydney who like her was single, Christian, and keen to forge a relationship ASAP. And then he went to Nigeria on a business trip and somehow lost his wallet. $8,000 later, it dawned on Christina that she was the victim of a love scam.

Today she runs a website called romancescamart.com. Primarily the site warns others about the dangers of online dating. It also operates as a gallery space. According to Christina the hardest part of dealing with being scammed was how intangible it all was. So to make it real, she painted the scammer, who she tracked down on Facebook. She also painted her feelings, as abstract as they were. I called her up to understand these paintings a bit more, and to ask her how she got so thoroughly duped. Like, wouldn’t you just know?

VICE: Hi Christina, let’s just clarify, that painting of you and a guy in sunglasses, that’s him? Your personal scammer?
Christina O'Reilly: Yes, that’s the actual person behind the scam. I became very good at internet research after this.

So how did you feel when you saw his face?
I thought this guy’s Black. I thought I’d fallen for a Caucasian, and it made no difference to me what colour his skin was, but he clearly wasn’t the same person he’d claimed to be.

Can you describe the moment you realised for sure?
It was after I sent all that money to get him home, and then he said there’d been an accident and he was stuck at the airport. I knew right then. At first it was disbelief, but then also at the back of my mind, I already knew.

So why do you think you were vulnerable to this?
I think it was a combination of my religion; my Catholic upbringing, which always taught me to help people out. And RSVP said that their members are genuine, which I believed. And the fact that I was single and looking for love. I guess I just wanted to believe.

Let’s talk about some of your paintings. What’s this one here about?
Well, it’s an image of the computer’s fan and you get sucked into it. You can’t take yourself off, you just go around and around. You feel good for a little while, but then you cry again.

Did you learn anything about love from that process?
Absolutely. I learned that love is only a perception that you create yourself. Before the romance scam I believed that people fell in love, that it was something outside of themselves. Now I see it as you just creating the love. It’s in your own brain. It has to be because I fell in love with nothing. I was just in love with the story.

And what are we looking at here?
That depicts how I was in love with a person, but I didn’t know who that person was. That person was looking at me, and they knew who I was, but I didn’t know who they were. They’re the many faces of that one person. And also the fact that there was probably more than one person involved.

And do you now think these people are complete arseholes?
No, you have to consider all of Nigeria. They’ve got around 300,000 police personnel to about one 170 million people. It’s one of the poorest places in the world, yet they have huge earnings from their reserves of oil. So the people are watching their own politicians channel this money into their own accounts, and you can understand their culture of financial crime.

The image of the building at night. What does that mean?
That’s a house. When a crime usually happens, it’s outside the home. In this case the crime happens in the safety of you own home.

What sort of emails do you receive from people?
I receive emails from people, with their stories, asking for advice. I also receive emails from Nigerians, telling me that not all Nigerians are like that. I’ve had a few of those. I guess it makes it harder for them so they don’t want sites like mine around.

Looking Through the Glass

Last week in Australia, the ACC reported that love scams were up eight percent on last year. Why do you think that is?
Well maybe there’s two reasons. Firstly, you see, once you’re romance scammed you’re actually taught the art of deception. After that you know how it works and you could go out and do it yourself. We’re now seeing people work with the Nigerians to scam people. There was a mother and daughter team recently caught in the US as an example. And the other reason is that more people are reporting it now. A few years back most people didn’t want to report it. They’re already trying to cope with the loss of the relationship and the money. I found that a lot of people are critical, and if you’re just trying to function, you don’t need that criticism.

The Garden of Grief

So what advice would you give to prevent being scammed?
Know what to look out for. I can now spot scams from a mile away, just by looking at the profile. A lot of scammers use the same pictures. It’s a better quality picture usually. When they’re trying to scam men, the woman always look like porn stars. When they’re trying to get women, they’re always handsome business men. They’re nearly always widows too.

And what advice would you give to people who think they’re being scammed?
Put the person’s name in Google with the word scam after it. Also get the photo and put that through Google Images. And take notice of the accent. I kept trying to place the accent but I just couldn’t recognise it. So that’s one of the pages on my site – what does a Nigerian accent sound like? And then finally, when you know, walk away. I did a clean break for about two months but then I couldn’t stand it, so I demanded an apology from him. He eventually responded with I still love you blah blah blah. They do this stuff in an attempt to just get more money. You just have to stop contacting them. The more you stay in the cycle, the more you get hurt.

Follow the author on Twitter.