Joe was warm. He was a talker. A little odd at first, but he said a lot of the right things.
He presented as a wealthy farmer and former architect who wanted to settle down in the country with his kelpie and have fun weekend getaways.
Stephanie Wood is an award-winning investigative journalist.
Not what you would call an easy mark, but someone who took a chance at online dating and who, in 2014, thought she’d found a perfect match.
Stephanie Wood is telling her story to warn others.(Supplied: Nic Walker)
“I was a little hesitant at first, but gradually I came to think that he was simply gorgeous and lovely and full of the qualities I had always been looking for,” Stephanie said.
“I thought we were just fabulous together.”
But this isn’t a love story.
In fact, it’s the beginning of a startling account that Stephanie believes is just one example of a “silent epidemic” in Australia’s dating scene.
It’s one she has detailed in a new book with a simple but apt title: Fake.
Too good to be true?
Joe found Stephanie through an old online dating account and she decided to take a chance.
Their first meeting was at a bar and despite some awkwardness Stephanie decided to see him again. After all, she thought, we shouldn’t be too picky, right?
He was divorced with two kids. He once owned an architectural practice and had worked at a private equity firm, but now divided his time between looking after his kids and tending his sheep farm south of Sydney.
As the relationship progressed his story fleshed out.
Space to play or pause, M to mute, left and right arrows to seek, up and down arrows for volume.
People’s capacity for cruelty is breathtaking, says Stephanie Wood
He sent a photo of his ute stuck in mud on the farm. He spoke often of his boat, which was being renovated. He mapped out his plans to buy or maybe build on a rural property.
Over 16 months together Stephanie went with Joe to visit these prospective properties.
“He’d say things like, ‘I’m picturing you with grey hair in the farmhouse kitchen’, and, ‘I want a special room for you to write in’,” Stephanie said this week.
“Things that made me think that we had a future together.”
But then the red flags started.
There were the frequent and last-minute cancellations. His dog was sick, or one of his kids had an asthma attack. He was stuck on the farm or there was a quick business meet-up he needed to attend.
The property purchases always fell through, and visiting the boat wasn’t possible because the builders weren’t quite ready.
Stephanie did meet his kids and Joe met her family, who thought he was great and told her not to get too anxious about the other stuff lest she ruin a good thing.
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But the warning signs kept coming, and eventually Stephanie put her journalistic skills to use.
What she uncovered was startling: Joe was a fake.
He’d never worked at the private equity firm he’d claimed to. He didn’t own the boat. He’d never been registered as an architect in NSW. And he was an undischarged bankrupt who would hardly have capacity to buy any of the properties they visited.
The photo of his vehicle stuck in mud had actually been pinched from an online forum years earlier, and cropped so the two men in the original weren’t seen.
What’s more, he’d been seeing another woman at the same time as Stephanie, complete with dinners and weekend getaways.
While Stephanie had been sick with anxiety after Joe bailed on attending a wedding with her — there was a family crisis, he later said — he’d actually been dining on scallops with another woman.
“The capacity for cruelty that these characters have is just breathtaking,” she said.
‘Our brains trick us’
After Stephanie ended the relationship she started to think back over the experience. How could she not have seen what was happening?
“There is so many factors that go into why people stay with people who are starting to appear not as they seem,” she said.
“I was seeing red flags. I’d certainly done some googling of this person and some of his stories definitely checked out.”
If you’re googling your partner, it might be a danger sign, Stephanie says.(Unsplash: Niklas Hamann)
Stephanie’s quest for answers led her to the world of cognitive science. It was something of a revelation.
“Our brains play tricks on us and our brains lead us to place importance in certain information at the expense of other information,” she said.
“So I was placing weight in the fact that I knew his grandfather had been a very prominent Australian businessman, I had seen his harbourside address on his drivers licence.
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“And I placed weight in those facts, which were immutable, at the expense of other facts that I should have been looking at more closely.”
Add to this that humans are hardwired to seek love, and you have a situation ripe for a con artist to take advantage.
They may not be in it for financial gain. For some, it seems just the thrill of the game.
“This is a primitive response we have to want to be in love and stay in love,” Stephanie said.
“It’s a survival mechanism so there should be no shame attached to it. The shame really should be going the other way to the people that behave in this way.”
There are hundreds of stories like this
When Stephanie first shared her story in a 2017 article for the Good Weekend magazine she was overwhelmed by the response.
Journalists don’t typically receive hundreds of emails about a story, but Stephanie was inundated with messages from women — and some men — who shared similar experiences.
And the stories were absolutely heart-wrenching.
So much of dating has moved online and on social media.(News Video)
“This is a silent epidemic and people don’t talk about it because of the shame attached to it,” she said.
“You don’t ever want to appear stupid, you want to appear smart, you like to think you are smart.
“And so, I feel as if by coming out I’m hoping that I can show people some of the red flags, but also encourage them not to feel so silly.”
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Stephanie said she also felt compelled to tell her story as a warning for those just entering the dating scene — one that is almost entirely filtered through apps and websites now where people can present any image they like.
“There’s so much capacity in people to deceive,” Stephanie said.
“I think we imagine that the world is a fundamentally truthful place and most people are fundamentally truthful, and I’ve discovered that’s not the case at all which is really, really tragic, but it’s reality.”
As for Joe, that part of Stephanie’s life is well and truly over.
It’s been a clean break.
“I think a few emails might have gone into my junk inbox but I don’t look at them,” she said.