How I found real love online, even after I was catfished

Mar 1, 2016 at 8:00 a.m. ET
Image: Anthony Lee/OJO Images/Getty Images

I wasted no time jumping back into the dating pool after my breakup. After nine years of enduring a passionless relationship, I was ripe to get dating again. My ex announced we were through at 6 p.m. on a Sunday night. By 9 p.m., my online dating profile was live. Let the adventures begin... And they did.

I was a hungry woman at an all-you-can-eat buffet. I had a slew of responses right away, but one stood out. He was a handsome fellow from Ohio, 42 years old, with a young son. His brown eyes twinkled with warmth. The connection was instant. We had long messaging sessions and he always seemed to know the right things to say.

After a month of chatting, I wanted to move things forward and meet. He made excuses why he couldn’t. I was understanding at first, then grew suspicious. Despite that, my feelings deepened. He became part of my world. I had those warm, fuzzy feelings that I longed for.

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One day, he told me he had to fly to London on business. He would be flying direct from his hometown. As someone who travels worldwide, this struck me as odd. His local airport was small, unlikely to offer direct flights overseas.

I quickly confirmed my hunch on the airline website and confronted him about his lie. He was angry I doubted him, but I pushed hard for him to come clean. “I know you’re not who you say you are,” I said. “Just tell me the truth….” And he did.

He admitted that he was a 19-year-old student living with his parents. He was hoping to romance a woman to get money from her to attend college. A friend gave him pictures to use for setting up a fake dating profile. He apologized. He said he really did like me and wanted to be friends. I declined.

I demanded he remove his ad, or I would report him. He deleted it, but four months later, it reappeared. I did what I had threatened and let the site know. I sent in screen captures of our messages — ones where he admitted why he’d created a fake profile. His account was suspended.

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He was my first catfish. The encounter made my blood boil. How dare he attempt to deceive someone to satisfy his own selfish needs. Still, the experience didn’t deter me from my search.

When a nice guy from a town close by began emailing me, I was cautiously optimistic. It turned out he wasn’t actually living there. He was in Malaysia, supervising the building of a new hotel.

Something seemed off. I asked him about his hometown — his favorite restaurant, and the area where he lived. He wouldn’t answer me. Then after confessing his love, he asked for help. He didn’t have enough money to pay his construction crew. Could I send funds? Once they were paid, he’d come home and we could start dating. Another scammer.

I was pretty good at pegging these shady characters. I also read about the warning signs, everything from lovey dovey stuff too soon, over-wrought tragic personal stories (spouse lost to cancer, car crashes, etc.), and using canned love letters copied off sites. I also relied on my gut feelings and learned to ask specific questions that would cause them to mess up their cover stories.

I asked a guy who claimed to be a New York City architect what style the Empire State building was. He said, “Baroque.” Wrong. Art Deco. A so-called engineer named the school where he got his degree. When I looked it up, I found the school never offered an engineering program. Busted.

It became both a game and a quest. I took joy in reporting them — more than two dozen in total — and getting them banned from sites. But it grew tiresome. There were so many catfish. I doubt I was even making a dent. They likely made up new profiles on other dating sites. It seemed fruitless and I was a long way from my original goal — finding love.

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I knew I had to stop playing detective when I realized I was going onto the sites specifically to find these scoundrels. I’d lost sight of the reason why I went on them in the beginning. So, after six months, it was time to quit catfish hunting and find someone special.

It was a difficult transition because I suspected anyone who messaged me to be a catfish. I felt hopeless. But at least I knew what red flags to look for now. And, if I saw them, I just shut down communication quickly instead of trying to confirm my catfish suspicions. Restoring my faith in online dating was a slow process. But I figured if I was doing it and had good intentions, maybe there were others like me. I knew there were success stories and I had met three previous partners online as well.

I cautiously exchanged messages with a handsome artist who lived an hour from me. At first, it was just short exchanges, then they become longer as we asked each other more questions. We talked on the phone a couple of times and that went well. My alarm bells remained silent. We met in person after chatting for about two months. It was instant like at first sight. He actually looked like his profile photo — the same warm, friendly smile.

The conversation was easy, interesting and far reaching, from the challenges of being self-employed to whether pineapple on pizza was a gift from the heavens or the work of Satan. We ended our dinner date with a hug that left me feeling warm and fuzzy. We agreed on the spot to meet again soon.

That was almost four years ago. We’re still blissfully happy. It’s the best relationship I’ve ever been in. And, 18 months ago, he moved in with me.

Still, whenever I hear about a friend looking for love online, I share my cautionary tales and some advice. I tell them, “If you’re going fishing in the dating pool, be prepared to hook a catfish or two. When you do, cut ’em loose — quick. There really are more fish in the sea — and not of the ‘cat’ variety!”