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Spotting a sweetheart scam artist


How to detect the lies and get out before it's too late

MSNBC (04/24/2002)

By Jennifer Kornreich

If you’re burning for some astute answers to an emotional or sexual crisis, Sexploration is all ears. This week, columnist Jennifer Kornreich offers advice on detecting a deceitful lover and recovering from the betrayal. Plus, getting to the bottom of a sexual fetish. Send your questions to sex@msnbc.com.

SEXPLORATION is our forum for your most intimate questions about sex and relationships. You send in your sob stories, and Jennifer Kornreich, MSNBC’s sex-and-relationship columnist, attempts to dry the tears. Keep in mind, though: Jennifer is not a doctor. When she feels it’s necessary, she’ll point you in the proper professional direction.

Q. I married a scam artist and now I’m $165,000 in the hole. Right now, he’s riding a $30,000 motorcycle he bought with my money. I also found out I am his sixth wife. Now he is already moving on to No. 7. I lost everything. I cannot even afford a lawyer to get a divorce and move on with my life. I hate this man. I want to get him out of my mind, but I just can’t get over what has happened. He’s out there running around laughing at my naivete. I do nothing but cry. How do I get over this and move on? And how can I detect a con artist in the future and prevent this from happening again?

A: “We operate under a truth bias, whereby we generally assume that someone is honest,” says Sally Caldwell, a sociologist at Southwest Texas State University and author of “Romantic Deception: The Six Signs He’s Lying.” “We’re also taught to be polite, so we’re afraid to challenge someone’s words for fear of appearing rude. And we need those tendencies for society to function, or else we’d be a nation of paranoid people. But slow down and take a lot of time before granting your complete trust to a potential partner. Romantic liars try to speed the pace of a relationship so that it becomes intense very quickly.”

“People who con others are generally psychopaths,” says Brent Turvey, forensic scientist and criminal profiler at the Academy of Behavioral Profiling in Sitka, Alaska, and author of the just released second edition of “Criminal Profiling: An Introduction to Behavioral Evidence Analysis.”

Contrary to popular belief, criminality and psychopathy don’t always go hand-in-hand, although they certainly often do. “Basically, psychopaths view other people as sources of gratification and act accordingly without remorse or conscience. At one end of continuum, you have violent criminals — at the milder end, you have functioning, highly successful narcissists who do well professionally and abide by the law but wreak interpersonal havoc. We live in a culture where self-interest and instant gratification are rewarded, so it’s sometimes difficult to spot the psychopaths among us.”

Red Flags

Turvey adds: “Con artists look for people who have low self-esteem and exploit that. They are parasitic and live off of others’ goodwill.”

But there are signs to look out for.

“Con artists and other psychopaths spend a lot of time talking about themselves in a self-aggrandizing fashion — bragging about their larger-than-life accomplishments and grand schemes, which are often completely fabricated,” Turvey notes. “Also, watch out for people who constantly need to borrow money — they always have a sob story, or they’ve ‘forgotten their wallets.’

“Another sign is someone who is amused by cruelty. If they laugh at others’ suffering — not a nervous laugh, but genuine laughter at someone’s pain,” that’s a sign that you’ve got a psychopath on your hands, Turvey says.

Despite the grandiose boasting, Caldwell notes, pathological liars tend to know more intimate and personal details about your life than you do about theirs. Before you plunge too deeply into a relationship, think about what you really know about the person. Is there evidence to back up the information? Have you met family and friends who can back up his tale of winning a Purple Heart? Have you seen his diploma from Harvard?

“Scam artists use what I call ‘tending behaviors’ and ‘narrowing tactics’: They often try to isolate you from family and friends — whether yours or his — in order to limit your ability to speak with people who might help you get a reality check on his stories. If they don’t live with you, they’ll call incessantly to keep track of your whereabouts. Unfortunately, many women misinterpret these behaviors as signs of affection. They are flattered that he always says, ‘Oh, let’s just have a quiet night at home — I want you all to myself.’ That’s OK sometimes — but if he never lets you out of sight, that’s a danger sign.”

Finally, Caldwell says, “trust your intuition. For my book, I interviewed many women who got a gut feeling that something was amiss, but they didn’t want to appear like a stereotype of a hysterical female.”

While both Turvey and Caldwell advocate asking a potential mate a lot of questions and being quietly critical, they caution you to avoid backing a known liar into a corner with your discovery of the truth, or with warnings about taking legal action, since they might turn violent. “Don’t confront him,” Caldwell advises. “What good will it accomplish? I understand the feeling of wanting to show the liar, ‘You didn’t fool me’ or wanting closure. But he’ll just deny everything, or turn it around to blame you — ‘Why are you always trying to sabotage our happiness?’ — or even get abusive.

When you sense that you’re with a liar, just get out of the relationship as quickly as possible, saying as little as possible to him. Say firmly, by phone if possible, ‘This isn’t working.’ Leave no loophole, like ‘This isn’t working right now,’ or else he’ll call later on. You may think you owe him an explanation, but you really don’t. This guy doesn’t play by normal social conventions, so why should you?” And just in case he doesn’t leave you alone, let a lot of trusted people in your life know about your breakup.

Cutting your loses

As for retaining a lawyer who will work with you on either a pro bono basis or at a low fee, go to a legal aid clinic in your community or consult a local law school for resources. If it’s appropriate and you actually have a chance to retrieve your assets from your husband, do so, but, Turvey cautions, if it’s just going to be a waste of time and energy that will keep the creep in your life longer, cut your losses and just get the divorce. “Count your blessings that your losses weren’t even greater,” Turvey says — he’s worked cases where scam artists kill their victims once they’ve gotten what they wanted.

Moving on emotionally may not happen for a while. Your trust has been shattered, and you are going to need a sounding board who can talk about this with you over a period of time and in front of whom you don’t feel embarrassed discussing what you perceive as your gullibility. Support from friends is always helpful, but I would urge you to see a therapist who works on a sliding scale, since you have been so emotionally traumatized by this experience.

Q: I’m 31 and fantasize about making love to women twice my age. I’m growing closer to my girlfriend (age 28), with whom I have a sexual relationship. I don’t understand my sexual attraction for one woman age 61 and then for another in her 50s. I have experienced anxiety and sexual performance anxiety with my girlfriend, so it might have been easier to fantasize about another woman, but why these older women?

A: Since you don’t say that you’re unable to become aroused or attain gratification with anyone except older women, it doesn’t sound like you are actually fetishizing this age group. Rather, suggests Joan Lachkar, a clinical psychologist in private practice in Beverly Hills, your attraction to older women is quite likely an expression of an unconscious emotional wish.

“Perhaps older women represent maternal nurturing qualities to you, while your female peers are reminiscent of past rivals (such as siblings),” Lachkar suggests. “Or, if an older woman has rejected you in some way in the past, perhaps older women represent unavailable objects of desire to whom you are irresistibly drawn.”

A third possibility is that you feel threatened by your increasing closeness to your girlfriend — hence your performance anxiety — and these older women serve as “safe” fantasy figures who might not demand as much of you sexually.

Getting to the roots of a fetish

When did your attraction to older women begin? Has it been there all along, or did it reveal itself only recently, once you began feeling more intimate with your girlfriend?

At any rate, Lachkar and I don’t view your attraction to older women as a problem per se. If you are not turned on by your girlfriend, that is a problem. If you cheat on your girlfriend with other people, regardless of their age, that is a problem. If your happiness lies with an older woman, that is a problem — primarily because you are not with an older woman. But if you merely fantasize about other women while having a healthy, loyal relationship with your girlfriend, that’s not unusual (albeit the age range of your current fantasy material is). Lachkar suggests that your problem lies within your relationship with your girlfriend, not outside it: Your emotional and sexual anxiety signify that you are feeling ambivalent about being intimate with her. Of course, the $100,000 question is whether your ambivalence is due to problems in the relationship, or to your true level of attraction to your girlfriend, or to your own tolerance and capacity for closeness.