dating

"I fell in love with a teenager. It was actually a 50-year-old man using photos of his son."

I was 15 when I met Richard in a teen chatroom; he told me he was 17 and lived in Australia, in the same state as me – an amazing coincidence in a chatroom full of Americans.

Our discussions began as casual conversations in the chatroom, before moving to private chat, ICQ then MSN messenger.

Casey Donovan speaks out about being catfished. Post continues after video. 

Richard could discuss movies, philosophy or his weekend parties with friends; no matter the topic, he had experience, opinions and prose to match. No subject was too deep or too trivial to discuss.

I’d finally found a guy who I thought was smarter than the immature boys at school. I’d come home each day and tell him about school, parties, classroom relationships and fights.

I was sure Richard wasn’t a bad person or scammer; he had none of the tell-tale signs everyone associates with online scammers. He never asked for money but offered me financial help more than once, which I refused. He’d never pushed to meet me, so he couldn’t be a predator or kidnapper. The longer we talked, the surer I was that no one who wasted so many hours on such everyday conversations could possibly have bad intentions.

Richard would talk to my female friends from school through instant messenger. He was funny, easy to talk to and he was always happy to give boy advice, something that made him appealing to my friend circle, with our limited knowledge of relationships.

Although Richard lived in the same state, he was still nearly a thousand of kilometres away, an impossible distance as a teenager limited by school, money, transport and parents. The same excuses made sense coming from him, too.

“My parents have divorced, so I’m moving to Cairns with my father,” he told me “He’s not coping, and although I want to visit you, I have to think about my family.” I could sympathise; my parents had divorced a few years earlier and we’d moved to a new house after the settlement.

After more than six months of talking online, Richard sent me an audio recording, saying hello to me. He was embarrassed about his voice, he said. Again, I could relate, as my own voice was husky, due to a childhood accident. We began talking by phone and I grew to look forward to hour long phone calls with Richard’s Scottish accent and ageless voice speaking through the distance.

We began talking by phone as often as three times a week, sometimes for as long as six hours at a time.

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"We began talking by phone as often as three times a week, sometimes for as long as six hours at a time." Image: Supplied.

Not everything was rosy, though. Richard was jealous and always pushing me to take photos of myself, or do things online I didn’t want to do, questioning my reasons if I refused. We’d break up over small things. Paradoxically, Richard would encourage me to go out and even told me he had no problem with me going out with boys, since we couldn’t be together in person.

I was 18 when he proposed, during one of our regular phone calls. I was ecstatic. Finally, after three years, we’d meet at last and start a life together. Less than two weeks later, we had a fight over when I didn't have time to talk to him on the phone.

"I can’t do this anymore. It’s over, Richard." I couldn’t believe he’d do something as serious as propose then change his mind over something so small and inconsequential. I couldn’t cope with his mood swings any longer.

It would take another nine years before I found out the truth, though, and during those nine years I could never get past the why. Why did he always have an excuse not to meet? Why did he never try harder? Why did he break off our short engagement? Why was I not good enough for him?

During those nine years, I did my best to firmly keep Richard at arm’s length. I married, had children, studied and started a career.

"I made the biggest mistake of my life," Richard told me, "I lost you when I was young and stupid, and I’ll never forgive myself for that."

Sometimes Richard and I wouldn’t talk to for six months or more, but one of us would always break the silence, curious about what the other person was doing. I was happily married but I still wanted to meet him, just once, just to assuage my curiosity and close that chapter of my life. Always able to see through my reasoning, he immediately figured out why.

"You only want to meet me to exorcise me from your life," he said on the phone. "We’re not together anymore, so I can’t just drop my job and studies, travel 10 hours and meet someone off the internet, just so you can finally get over me."

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"One of us would always break the silence, curious about what the other person was doing." Image: Getty.

Once again, I felt guilty for asking questions, as he subtly reminded me that I’d been the one to end the romantic part of our relationship.

The older I was, the more I suspected something wasn’t right with Richard. He was too good to be true, with a university education, a job and travelling regularly, while still claiming not to have serious relationships.

I suspected he was lying to me about something, but I thought it was from embarrassment or shame; maybe he didn’t have the good job he claimed, or maybe he still lived with his parents. I never thought his entire identity could be a lie.

It wasn’t until 2014 that I heard the term catfish and watched a few episodes of the TV show which started the trend for identifying strangers involved in internet relationships.

I realised that I wasn’t alone; there were thousands of people who, for varying reasons of their own, used fake personas online to trick people.

I found a website which offered to find the identity of any catfish with only an email address. I paid a small fee and within 24 hours I received an email to confirm Richard’s identity.

Richard hadn’t lied about his location; he really did live ten hours away. Other than that, very little of what Richard had told me was true. The man I’d been talking to for 12 years was 62 years old, a married grandfather and worst of all, the photos he’d sent me were of his own son.

Despite all the warnings I’d heard about dangerous people on the internet, I’d been fooled.

It took me 12 years to realise that online predators don’t follow a list of obvious behaviours. In fact, there are many people on the internet who create fake online personas for a hundred other reasons than the obvious; lost youth, low self-esteem, boredom, revenge, and the list goes on.

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