Woman loses life savings to fraud fiance met on web

The 42-year-old Jordanian secretary said she had met the man online a month earlier and they decided to marry.

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ABU DHABI // As Mona Awad waited at Abu Dhabi International Airport on October 15, 2009, all she could think about was how she could make her future husband a happier person. But within hours, her only thoughts were of how she had been cheated out of her life's savings: Dh110,000 (US$30,000), money he had told her he needed to pay taxes on lucrative business contracts.

The 42-year-old Jordanian secretary said she had met the man online a month earlier and they decided to marry. She lives with her family in the Tourist Club area. And the pressures of being single, she said, were simply too much. "I was not desperate for a husband as much as I was desperate to leave my family," Ms Awad said. Ms Awad, a Christian, said she lost touch with her community in her home country, so she turned to an Indian dating website to look for a husband. She said she did not join an Arabic website because Arabs would think of it as "advertising myself".

"Foreigners accept the idea [of dating online], but if I married an Arab, he would tell me later 'did you forget when you advertised yourself to me?'" She had been checking the website since August last year, but joined in September and paid Dh227 for a three-month subscription to the Shaadi matrimonial service. "The main reason [I joined the website] is because I'm living outside my country and I don't go to my country often enough. I go there every five or six years," she said.

"Because Arab expats here are mostly Muslims, it is difficult for me to find a husband," she said. "There is so much pressure inside the house and from society. I'm fed up of living with my family." Through the website she met a man who called himself "Williams James". His story was that he was a 42-year-old American widower with one child and business connections in Nigeria. As their relationship deepened, he told her he had to travel to Nigeria to close a business deal before visiting her in the UAE.

He sent her a copy of two contracts he said he signed in Nigeria worth US$1 million (Dh36.7m) each. But a few days later, he told her he could not travel to the UAE because he was required to pay taxes for signing the contracts. He asked her whether she could help him out. "I started to have doubts but I thought it was OK for men from other cultures to ask for help in such cases. I also wanted to leave the house," she said. "I asked him first why you wouldn't ask your family or business partners.

"I then started talking to him about fraud in Nigeria and said that he should be careful. I advised him to seek help from the embassy." She said he was aware of her savings and monthly salary. He asked her to send him US$12,000. She did. He then asked for US$10,000, sent in different amounts to the man and two of his friends, identified as Robert and Samuel, because she could send only up to Dh5,000 a day through Western Union.

The money she sent represented 22 years of work, the last nine of which had been at a car dealership. Since 2004, she had taken reimbursement for her annual leave and plane tickets to help her save. After the wire transfers, she was left with Dh70 in her account. She also borrowed Dh5,000 to prepare for her wedding and paid for every international call to her suitor. "Mr James" was to arrive on that day in October at 7.30pm. After waiting for almost an hour, she asked police for help.

And when she checked with the supervisor of British Airways, on which her fiance would supposedly be flying, she found that her would-be husband had not confirmed his booking. "I cannot say I fell in love with him, but I became emotionally attached to him," Ms Awad said. "I thought I would finally marry. I also told everyone I would marry soon." In the end, she told her family that he had been "just playing".

Dr Ahmad Alomosh, the chairman of the sociology department at the University of Sharjah and a specialist in crime and families, said the issue had become a phenomenon in the UAE because of the openness of cyber space. Dr Alomosh, who wrote a study about the issue globally, said the extent of the phenomenon here was not yet known because it is not well-studied, partially because many victims do not report cases.

He said some people and companies are afraid because they had been blackmailed by fraudsters. But he said awareness was the key to fighting the issue. "This kind of fraud depends largely on finding the right victim," Dr Alomosh said. "They study the psychology of the victim through the communication they have with them. So people should not even reply to such communications." Ms Awad, meanwhile, has filed a complaint with the police, who say money transfer records placed "Mr James" in Nigeria. She said she still holds out hope that he will be arrested and her savings will be returned to her.

"I was devastated, psychologically and emotionally," she said. hhassan@thenational.ae