After being duped by an online lover, one dater went in search of the mystery romancer who had spun the same web of lies to many other women – including protestations of love and phone sex – only to have it confirmed that the hoaxer was hiding one final surprise. One victim was joined on her journey to find the answer to a simple question – why?
On a Saturday afternoon in June, Claire Travers Smith arrives in a port town in Pembrokeshire, where the air is salty, the gridded streets quiet and an enormous multistorey ferry looms in the harbour, waiting to plough across the sea to Ireland. Claire has come in from the other direction, a few hundred miles on motorway and snaking A-road from London, travelling about as far west as Wales goes. She is searching for someone she once fell in love with.
They met online two years ago, Claire tells me, almost to the day. It was through a dating website, Smooch, and she found the man compelling right away. He could spell and he knew how to be flippant and funny via browser-window text box – traits that Claire, an experienced and weary internet dater, had come to prize.
"Yeah, you'll do," he wrote to her. "Now are we gonna mess about on here for weeks, gradually upgrading to texting one another, or are we just gonna meet up and go on a date?" They swapped real names, photographs, phone numbers.
Claire learned that Sebastian Pritchard-Jones was a 35-year-old teacher, a football fan who adored vintage Ford Cortinas and lived in Marylebone, west London. His photographs showed him in thick-rimmed glasses, a slender man with brown hair and a square, bearded jaw. "Nicer-looking than the men who normally messaged me back," judged Claire, 30, a TV producer who has worked on This Morning and The Weakest Link. She has long fringed hair that frames a round, pleasant face. When she and Sebastian first spoke on the phone, Claire remembers prickling with attraction. He had a reedy Welsh accent. He teased her about having an unusual double-barrelled surname, like his own. He told her to call him Seb. This was a relationship brought about by new technology but sustained by old. Their telephone conversations got longer and longer and "within a couple of weeks, Seb was the first person I heard from in the morning and the last person at night". Claire revealed things to him she'd never told anyone. Seb was a good listener. He said wise things.
But he was no good at sticking to plans. When they arranged to meet for the first time in a Soho pub, he was kept late at his school and had to cancel. Then he made a mess of the rearranged date, going out to play football and ending up in bed with a torn muscle. Claire was frustrated but forgave him – organisational hopelessness didn't seem the most terrible vice in a man met online. She'd once been set up with someone who reminded her, visually, of Satan. Over the years she'd cancelled accounts with Smooch, Guardian Soulmates, Match and OK Cupid, too often disappointed. Usually she drifted back, still looking.
A third date was arranged and Seb stood her up again. Family problems, he said, buying her a gift this time to apologise. It was a bottle of perfume, a scent Claire liked. Seb handwrote a note – "Why would I buy you a bottle of perfume if I had no intention of meeting you?" – and laid it next to the bottle, taking a digital photograph of both.
Claire has looked at this image many times since; surely more times than Seb ever did. She has brought her laptop with her to Pembrokeshire, and on its hard drive, among hundreds of files relating to Seb, the picture of the perfume bottle is the most revealing. The bottle has a round, mirrored surface. It shows a reflection of someone leaning in, holding a camera, taking the photograph.
Studying the image on her laptop, zooming, squinting, Claire saw that the person she had fallen for was never slender with brown hair. No glasses, no beard. Instead this was someone blonde, double-chinned, with large, puffy arms. Claire saw a woman.
The internet is famously well arranged for deception. Many of us have encountered its cons – that distant prince, keen to share his boundless treasure in return for one or two small loans. Online dating has tricks all of its own, even if most are harmless. A survey by OK Cupid in 2010 found that the majority of its 1.5m subscribers lied about their stated height, adding an inch or two. They upped their income by about 20 per cent.
There are sometimes more radical embellishments. In America, people have been fascinated for months by the story of Manti Te'o, an American football player whose girlfriend, met online, turned out not to exist. The precise details of the case are still not clear, but a fellow player suggested Te'o had been "catfished" – a reference to the 2011 documentary Catfish, about a New York man who believed he was involved in an online relationship with a girl in Michigan. (He was wrong.) A spin-off TV series, on MTV, explored similar dating hoaxes, as did Channel 4's How To Fall in Love Online last month. More and more, it seems, love is being offered on the internet, and offered dishonestly.
"Apparently, this is a whole new thing to be aware of," Claire tells me. "People who would be duplicitous for reasons that aren't financial." Soon after receiving Seb's photograph of the perfume bottle, she ended the relationship. Being stood up repeatedly was one thing, but the photograph frightened her. Seb replied: "I think I'm falling in love with you." It was the last time they spoke.
Claire was writing a blog about dating at the time, and picked over the stranger elements of the affair for a series of articles. Seb liked to email photographs of himself doing dramatic things – snorkelling, paintballing, shaping his hair into a mohawk in the bath – and he also sent lots of photos of handwritten messages. One was a spider-gram, drawn carefully in red felt-tip and listing "Things I like or love". Teaching, roast dinners, football, bottled Bud, Cortinas, Claire. It almost read like a list of prompts.
Claire wrote about Seb's voice, its "smooth Welsh tones", and mentioned other details such as the four-bedroom Marylebone home he owned and a beloved niece who lived back in Wales. Seb once had a girlfriend who died of cancer and his best friend, Philip, was severely disabled. Claire published her blogs in June 2011. Before long, emails started to come.
Different names, different faces, unmistakably one person. They'd all got used to late-night drunken calls in which songs were sung down the phone, mostly football chants, though Rachel got hymns. Karen received roses; so did Susan. Ali was sent money to shop for clothes and booked into a hotel at Seb's expense. They'd all been told about the teaching job, soon to yield a promotion, and a disabled best mate, Philip.
Danielle told me: "We'd speak for five or six hours at a time. He dominated my life." Susan said: "I lost six months to it." Ali managed to get so close to Seb she would sleep with her mobile on her pillow. They had phone sex.
"It was a daily occurrence to say how much we loved each other. We talked about having kids." Karen was due to be introduced to his family in Pembrokeshire, but when she got to the train station nobody came to pick her up. Danielle had been promised a trip to New York. Seb told her he'd collect her on his way to the airport.
Sunday Indo Living