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I thought I had a second chance at love. But I was being scammed

She wasn’t actively looking for someone new, but Malaysian divorcee Samantha thought she’d hit the jackpot with Zi Ming. She ended up some US$20,000 poorer and with a broken heart. 

I thought I had a second chance at love. But I was being scammed

The relationship Samantha thought she had with "Zi Ming" was very real to her. (Illustration: Rafa Estrada)

Name: Samantha (pseudonym), 50 

Status: Divorced, professional in a listed company, living in Malaysia

Zi Ming caught my attention the first time he messaged me on Instagram early this year. “You remind me of my teacher,” he wrote. “I miss her very much.”

I use Instagram a lot to keep in touch with my overseas friends, and I get messages every day from strangers trying to hook up. They’re always like, “Hi, beautiful” or “Hi, darling”.

Why am I your darling? I don’t know you! I usually block and report them to Instagram.

But Zi Ming was different. Teacher? Wow. That was interesting. That was how we got chatting.

Usually, people who’re out to scam you would want to ask more about you, right? To find out more so they can target you. But he didn’t. He could go on and on about himself, and his messages were super long.

For the next few months, we chatted almost every day. He was 39 years old, witty, intelligent and chatty. We shared many jokes and laughed a lot.

I wasn’t actively looking for someone. I live and work in Kuala Lumpur. I got divorced many years ago and raised my daughter by myself. Now that she’d graduated and I had a bit more freedom, I thought maybe I could make a friend online.

And maybe I could have a second chance at love. With Zi Ming, I thought I’d won the lottery.

THE ‘BOYFRIEND’ I THOUGHT I HAD

He told me he was living in Shanghai. He seemed to know the city and its streets well; he’d describe places he wanted to bring me to and where he went to buy things.

He said he worked in a construction company that built roads all over China. He brought this up first and seemed surprised to find out that I had a background in construction too, supplying products like tiles and cladding. 

We joked that he laid the foundations, and I did the beautiful part.

He told me about his family and that his father had a skin condition. Zi Ming had to help his father scrub his skin at least once a week, and he’d joke later about returning from hard labour.

His English wasn’t very good. I think he used Google Translate, and sometimes he’d accidentally send his messages in Mandarin, then apologise and say he was too excited. But when I asked him if we should speak in English or Mandarin when we meet, he told me sweetly that he’d improve his English for me.

To be sure, he wasn’t perfect. He himself admitted that he could be overbearing and impatient at times — but was firm in his beliefs. It made him seem more human and real.

I thought we really enjoyed each other’s company. To put it simply, I thought it could be love.

Listen: Samantha on how real the relationship was

We planned to meet in person once the Shanghai lockdown was lifted. He said he wanted to have two children, a girl and a boy. I’m 50, but thought I’d play along. Maybe I really wanted to believe him.

I was happier, and people noticed. They commented that I dressed differently and was smiling more. That was how real it was for me.

I even told my daughter, “Mummy might have a boyfriend.” She was happy for me, but I wasn’t ready to tell her more. I didn’t think I wanted to throw myself into this completely because I hadn’t met him yet.

Soon afterwards, Zi Ming told me: “You could come to Shanghai to meet me, and I’ll introduce you to my parents, but now we don’t need to involve anybody else.”

The thought of him being a scammer crossed my mind, I admit. But how could it be? There was no pressure at all. He didn’t ask for money for charity or to pay hospital bills for sick parents, that kind of thing. He didn’t need money.

THE FIRST INVESTMENT 

In fact, making more money seemed to be his goal in life. He encouraged me to do the same because if we were not on the same wavelength, it’d be hard for us to be together in future.

Listen: Samantha on how Zi Ming pressured her to start investing

He was proud of his experience in cryptocurrency trading. He said he’d put a lot of work into coming up with a formula that he used to make his trades.

That teacher I supposedly reminded him of was the one who encouraged him to study cryptocurrency. Every now and then, he disappeared for an hour or so, telling me he needed to make his crypto deals, then return and continue chatting to me.

So it started subtly. When he first suggested I try investing, it was two weeks after he first contacted me. He suggested I put in a little bit, maybe US$1,000, and he’d be with me all the way.

I refused. It was ridiculous — you’re in another part of the world, and if anything happens, I’m stuck in a world I don’t understand. We got into a fight and didn’t chat for a day.

Then he came back. “I’m not made for cold wars,” he told me. He came up with these kinds of words that softened my heart.

I calmed down, and we didn’t chat about investing for some time. A week later, he slipped it in again. “The market’s really good right now,” he said. “Why don’t you try it? And if you don’t like it, you can always stop.”

I tried to check out the website he gave me the link to — QEwold.com — but couldn’t find any information. I asked him to teach me what he based his trades on, and he showed me a picture of many numbers on a piece of paper, like a mathematical calculation.

He told me it was too complicated, and it did look complicated. But I thought about it. He wasn’t going to shut up unless I tried it. 

And it was only US$1,000. If I lost, I’d just lose that.

THE CON

But I didn’t lose. I made US$71 in an hour, and I got my money back, plus profit, in my bank account.

Actually, I was interested in investing in the stock market at the time. But Zi Ming told me to forget it. Let’s make money from cryptocurrency instead, he said, repeating that he’d be with me all the way.

I don’t think I was greedy. It’s just that I wanted to do something with him.

So, whatever I could sell, I sold. I also took some money out of my Employees Provident Fund (EPF) — we could withdraw some of it owing to Malaysia’s movement control order.

I put in more than US$10,000 in total, but maybe two months after I first invested, he told me we were progressing too slowly. 

“Why not apply for a loan from the platform itself?” he asked.

I was sceptical about getting one. But he told me to try and ask for US$30,000. To my surprise, after I sent a copy of my identification, my loan was approved straight away. I saw the money appear in my account on the platform immediately.

The thing is, it was a three-day loan. That was the only way to get the money with zero interest. Zi Ming wasn’t very happy about that when I told him. He said I should’ve asked for the money for at least a week — but never mind, he told me.

We traded for three days and more than doubled that money. That was when I decided to return the money I borrowed and when the problems started.

The site’s customer service told me I couldn’t take the money out of my account to pay them back. Instead, I’d have to deposit fresh funds: US$30,000.

I was confused. If I had money to start with, why would I be borrowing from you?

So I was told to put in US$10,000 minimum, so that my account would not be permanently frozen, and to pay back the rest of the money as soon as possible. If not, they’d start charging me late fees or even take legal action.

Samantha's chat with the app's "customer service". (Photo: Samantha)

THE LAST THING HE SAID TO ME

I was scared. All this was unfamiliar to me.

Zi Ming couldn’t help me. He said he was sorry he introduced me to the loan but couldn’t just transfer his money overseas, because of how strict China was.

But we’ve already worked so hard, he added. “Come up with that US$10,000, and I promise you, when we can travel, I’ll go to you and give you the money to settle all this. Just don’t let your account be frozen.”

I couldn’t scold him because I was the one who applied for the loan in the first place, and I was the one who got it.

So I withdrew more money from my EPF, took some credit card loans and managed to get that US$10,000. But I still had US$20,000 to settle, and I had no more money.

Zi Ming tried to get me to borrow money from my friends. But I couldn’t. It wasn’t right. It was during the pandemic, businesses were doing badly, and US$20,000 is a lot of money in Malaysia.

At that point, maybe he felt that was as much money as he could get out of me. In total, I’d parted with about US$20,000. And that was when he decided to pull the plug on the scam.

Slowly he stopped replying. His last message was: “I’m in a bad mood these few days.”

Accepting what she had with "Zi Ming" wasn't real was challenging. (Illustration: Rafa Estrada)

THE RED FLAGS I MISSED

I think, on a subconscious level, I’d realised he was a scammer. That was probably why I wasn’t willing to put in that extra money. But accepting that what we had wasn’t real was a different story.

He was so real, and everything we did was so real as well, from the way we bought and sold, to the numbers and transactions — the charts were moving, like the stock market.

But looking back, I guess there were some red flags.

Listen: Samantha’s response to those who think only stupid people get scammed

There were times when he mixed me up with other people — sometimes he thought I was a Singaporean living in Singapore. He’d talk about his car and mix up the models. And he’d say he has to go on a trip, but when I asked him about it, he’d forgotten.

He also never seemed to want me to introduce or talk about him to my friends or to my daughter.

I know people may wonder how I could fall in love with someone I’d never met in person. But it’s not that difficult to imagine. It’s like going back to the days when we had pen pals, where you still get to know each other.

Besides, we’ve all been working from home for two years. Everything can be done on a virtual level — we even have happy hour Zoom meetings with our friends. So it doesn’t seem impossible to make a friend on Instagram.

But I’m still disappointed that I made this kind of decision to trust Zi Ming. And that I could be so foolish to accept that a person like him existed.

WATCH: I Fell For A Love Scam: How They Made It Seem So Real (7.57)

I’m not going to cry or commit suicide. I’ve been through worse. I can earn back the money I lost. 

But I want to understand how I was scammed. I want to understand how the scammers could build a website and sophisticated system and just be out there.

I know there are a lot of doubts about cryptocurrency. Usually, the minute I bring up cryptocurrency, my friends will shut me up. They’ll say don’t even touch it. But if you do this, you’re telling people not to learn about it — and less information makes people vulnerable.

I now go for talks and shows to learn as much as I can about cryptocurrency.

Right now, I just want to move on. And to do that, I need to know that I’m trying to help someone. That’s why I’m sharing my story.

I’m hiding my identity now because I’m worried about the consequences for my parents and my daughter. They’re the ones who’re helping me to survive this, although they don’t know it.

But one day, when I’m ready, I’ll show my face.

Text: Lianne Chia
Source: CNA/lc

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