“What did you find?” Jared twirled a pencil between his fingers as he waited for Melvin’s reply. He had spent a quiet Sunday reviewing all of the chat transcripts and other notes the three field offices sent to Will. A picture of those behind the chats was forming in his mind, but he still needed Melvin’s insights to finish a profile. A bolt of lightning pierced the late afternoon sky, followed closely by a peal of thunder. Jared hoped it was a prediction of their conversation.
“I must confess I found this more fascinating than I had anticipated.”
“I suppose if you’re into lonely hearts.” Jared shifted the phone to his right shoulder as he moved to the dining room table where his laptop waited. He should have used his ear piece to make the call, which would have made it easier to take notes. “What’s your assessment of the chat transcripts?”
“I think they’re written by four or five people at the most. They seem to be working off of a script much like telemarketers and call center personnel. What’s interesting is the level of personalization each takes while sticking to the same basic script.”
“You picked up on that, too?”
“I’m glad to know you’re still sharp where it counts, Jared.” Melvin chuckled and Jared winced. Melvin always had an uncanny knack for inserting little zingers that crawled under one’s skin. It was just like Melvin to know that Jared still questioned his professional calling after the debacle of the previous case. Jared determined to ignore him and stick to the reason for his call.
“What does that tell us?”
“That you’re still prickly about the shooting.”
Jared sighed. “Not about me, about the chats.”
“Okay, I’ll behave.” Melvin cleared his throat. “When you erase all the fluff, you have three basic scripts that operate in sequential order. The first script weeds out those who might ask too many questions. That one is designed to troll for gullible victims, insecure people who probably won’t look beyond the surface of any written exchange.”
Jared typed furiously, wishing he had thought to record the conversation so he could go over it later at his leisure. Melvin’s reports were usually very clinical, unlike his conversations.
Melvin rolled on. “The second script reels in the victim by creating a false sense of intimacy quickly. Flattery, flirting, love poems, sappy songs, references to romantic movies, and so forth make up the bulk of them. The goal, of course, is to make the mark fall in love with the writer. The third script follows up on the love declaration with a crisis of some sort that demands immediate action. The writer never directly asks for money, but the victim inevitably offers financial help to the writer.”
Jared pounded the keys, jotting down Melvin’s main points. “So the scam is all about the payoff.”
“Once the writer has the money, there’s one more exchange that in which the writer says he has to go take care of the situation and will be in contact in a day or two.”
“And that’s the last thing the victim hears from the writer.” Jared stopped typing and picked up one of the transcripts, flipping to the end page. “The chatters are certainly clever to give them time to wipe out their existence in the twenty-four hours or so of silence.”
“To me, that shows this was a well-thought out scheme. They had an end goal and precise steps to reach it.”
Jared leaned back in his chair, picking up the pencil to tap it on the tabletop. “Each new victim would consume several weeks’ worth of online chats. None of the crises generated more than five hundred dollars. How is all that output worth so little financial gain? They don’t ask for bank account information, they don’t continually tap the victims for more and more funds like other scammers have done. They spend weeks cultivating a victim, get the initial payment, and then vanish. Why? It doesn’t make any sense.”
Melvin sighed into the phone. “I’m afraid you’re not going to like my answer.”
Jared put down the pencil and pinched the bridge of his nose. He had a bad feeling Melvin was about to put his worst fears into words. “Probably not, but go ahead.”
“I think it was all a warm-up exercise. Has your FBI friend found any more victims?”
“I’m not sure. This morning, I sent him a list of keywords for him to search online dating chat sites to see if the writers were trolling for new victims. Now that they know what keywords to look for, they might be able to locate fresh marks. These chat transcripts are four months old already.”
“I don’t think they’re going to find them. I think this group has moved on to bigger fish.”
Jared switched the cell phone to his left hand. “That’s what Will thought might happen. And so we’re fishing in the dark for an entirely new pattern.”
“Maybe not a totally new pattern. There are some things here that will be helpful in ferreting out where they are now.” Melvin coughed into the phone. “What struck me is how adept these writers are. You have the same person switching easily between an older and younger persona, even in a few cases between gay and straight. I saw very few mistakes in these transcripts, most of which appear to take place simultaneously. At least two of the transcripts appear to be written by the same person at the same time to two different victims.”
“That would fit with these people being native English speakers, as the linguistics analysts have said.”
“Oh, they’re definitely home-grown.” Melvin paused. “I will email you my full report in a few days.”
“Thanks, Melvin. I’m sure Will would appreciate any assistance at all, no matter how farfetched it might be.”
“I wish you luck. Don’t take this too hard, but you have a good life and don’t call me again.”
Jared smiled. Same old Melvin. “Will do and I won’t. You take care of yourself.”
A click sounded in Jared’s ear in response. He punched the phone off and set it on the table next to his laptop. He stood, stretching his arms over his heard and walked to the living room window that overlooked the back yard. It was getting a much-needed drenching from the storm. Through the streaked window, a faint light glowed upstairs in Mary’s house.
He wondered how she would react to his spying on her. He had to figure out a way to get to her computer and see if she was corresponding with Wildcat. But so far, his forays into her house had not revealed a computer or laptop anywhere downstairs. She probably had it stashed in her bedroom or upstairs office. Getting a peek in any upstairs rooms would tax his efforts at deception. He went into the kitchen and started the coffeemaker. Maybe he could sneak over for a look when she went to church, since that was the only time he ever saw her leave the house. For now, he might as well checkout Mary’s profile again on Soul Believers to see if there was any clue as with whom she was corresponding.
Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction. Phantom Love is copyrighted and cannot be used in any form without permission from Sarah Hamaker.