I have been on the Internet for a longer time than most folks. Back in 1997, I was learning a markup language called HTML used to create websites and to link everything to everything. It was all new back then and I got in on the ground floor. I was a demi-tech, halfway between the true techs who wrote code and understood computer hardware and normal, non-technical folks.

Along the way, I observed scams and scammers and learned about their scheming ways as they used the Internet with bad intentions.

I thought I was immune to their tricks, but no one is completely immune to what the technical people call ‘social engineering’. The bad guys of the Internet reach us not so much through technology, although that is how they contact us in the beginning, but through our human need to be recognized. We are a social species and react to positive and negative social clues.

As an Internet veteran, I thought I could always spot them. On Facebook I pick my friends and associates with care, thinking it better to have a smaller, friendlier group with special interests. I was not seeking to be popular. My own judgement failed me when I received a compliment on one of my postings on another Facebook site, devoted to African Violets and Gesneriads.

Red Flag One: The message where I received the compliment was at least a year old which meant that someone had searched carefully on Facebook, sifting through lots of old messages to find mine.

The man commenting on my message sent me a Facebook Friend request. Out of curiosity, and because of his compliment, I looked at his Facebook page and saw an ordinary-looking, red-faced chap in his 50s with a beer belly. He looked quite harmless. In one of his online photos was a small boy, supposedly his son. His Facebook page said he was a recent widower and lived far away in California. I felt sorry for him and granted his Facebook friend request. Most romance scammers present themselves as handsome professionals of some sort and this guy was certainly not that.

Red Flag Two: I felt sorry for him and that was my second mistake, my first was believing that someone would compliment an old message in a special interest group, especially since his message claimed that he was new to Facebook and the Internet. Social engineering in the hands of scammers engages emotion and emotion trumps reason every time.

I am retired, single and quite social on the Internet. I accepted Gentleman X’s friend request, and he began to private message me.

Red Flag Three: He was quick to comment on my ancient message but chose not to comment in public messages on my own Facebook site. Instead, he went straight to private messaging.

Red Flag Four: He asked me lots of leading questions, sizing me up, while telling me very little about himself. Among the questions he asked was “Are you married?” That last one set off alarm bells! I immediately made it very clear to him that I was a senior citizen and, although single, had zero interest in romance of any kind. Romance for the lonely is a long-established hook that scammers like to bait.

There were other little clues. His spelling was off in odd ways, as if English was not his primary language, It’s possible he was typing too many other messages to other ladies and did not take the time to check his spelling. If he had been a clever chatbot giving me computer-generated text his spelling would have been impeccable.

Red Flag Five: I mentioned to him that I had been on the Internet a long time and gave those who tried to scam me a very hard time. For the first time, he showed genuine interest in my replies and wanted to know all the details about scammers/harassers I had met. I changed the subject.

He had asked me a lot of questions in many, many messages. Most were general like “What’s your favourite colour?” These questions were meant to make me think he was interested in me. I didn’t care about that, but I started to get interested in him. Why was he sending me messages every hour? What possible interest could he have in an old lady, half a continent away? My polite replies changed in tone, and I started asking him questions.

Red Flag Six: They don’t want to talk about themselves unless they are telling a story intended to engage the victim’s sympathies.

I asked him, “Read any good books lately?” and that was a showstopper! Unsatisfied with his vague, general reply, I wrote again saying, “You didn’t answer my question,” I repeated. “Read any good books lately?” For the first time, there was a significant delay in his response. I’m guessing that query wasn’t in his grab bag of canned questions.

Putting my rational thinking cap on. I concluded my new Facebook friend was a crook, trying to soften me up by pretending to be interested in me. I had stopped his main romance scam attempt cold. With romance off the table, he was fishing for some other way to reach me. I had been fooled a bit but now the game was over. The most I had lost was a bit of time.

I sent him a final message thanking him for his interest and claiming that urgent family matters now had my full attention. I wished him well and said, “Goodbye!” Why antagonize a probable criminal?

I blocked him and all his future messages on my Facebook page. Game over!