Looking back, Janell said she should have realized that something was amiss sooner than one year into her long-distance relationship with a wealthy Los Angeles businessman.
He always ended their daily phone calls when he arrived home. He never invited her to his house when she flew into L.A. from Boise for their romantic rendezvous. When they went house shopping in Boise, he insisted that her name go on the paperwork.
But Janell – her middle name; she asked that her first and last names not be used to protect her identity — said she suspended disbelief because she was smitten. He was in his late 30s, 12 years older than her, funny, with a good business mind and a love of travel. She enjoyed their monthly trips, either when he came to Boise or the when pair drove out of LA. They talked about marriage. They talked about having children.
Then Janell’s real estate agent called, saying she had received a call from the boyfriend’s wife. The boyfriend stopped returning Janell’s calls.
Janell called Boise private investigator Barbara Jacobsen, who confirmed that Janell’s potential fiancé was already married. He owned a house in LA with his wife. They had a child. The wife was eight months pregnant.
Janell said she felt betrayed. Worse, she felt stupid.
“I was building this life in my head with this person, and all of a sudden, it came crashing down like a piano falling from 20-story building to the pavement,” she said.
She broke off the relationship. She was embarrassed each time she retold the story to the friends and family to whom she had introduced her boyfriend. But she was thankful that she caught on at last.
“I could have been pregnant,” she said. “We were talking about having kids, and it’s not like we were careful. I would have been stuck dealing with this person. He had a double life.”
MORE WORK FOR P.I.’S
Jacobson, who has worked as an investigator in Boise for 19 years, said she has seen a sharp increase in calls for partner background checks since Internet dating became common. Many cases involve long-term relationships that escalated quickly.
“I’ve had cases where people didn’t use their real name, to people embellishing what they do for a living or their financial status, to people sending fake pictures,” Jacobson said.
Prospective partners in such cases create personas closer to whom they would like to be than to the truth, she said. “They do that not thinking the relationship will go anywhere,” Jacobson said. “Then it comes time to meet, and they have to keep up the lies.”
Jacobson’s increase in background checks reflects a national trend.
The Wall Street Journal reported that annual revenue from investigation services, including employee background checks and other information collection, doubled to $5.2 billion in 2012 from $2.6 billion in 2002, according to data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau. Sales per employee at private-investigation firms more than doubled to $121,000 in that period, according to the data, which were released last year.
In June, the online dating site Match.com received 35 million unique visitors in the U.S. alone, according to technology statistics website statista.com. The top 10 dating websites received more than 95 million hits in June from American visitors.
Neal Custer, owner of Custer Agency in Boise, said he gets about a call a week to check on boyfriends or girlfriends. He looks for red flags, such as histories of domestic violence in previous relationships.
“We used to get very few,” Custer said. “As Internet dating is getting more mainstream, every month we seem to get more and more of them.”
Many calls for background checks come from friends or family members concerned that a loved one has committed to a sketchy relationship, Custer said. In those cases, clients are most often worried about adults in their late teens or early 20s, or those older than 60.
Custer received one such call from an ex-husband of a woman who had struck up a relationship online. The relationship was moving quickly, and the man moved in with the woman and her children. The ex-husband was unnerved that the man “seemed to focus more on enamoring the children than the woman, showering them with gifts,” Custer said.
Custer discovered the man had contacted the children online before he contacted the mother.
“He’d originally groomed them online, doing all of the things that a child molester would do,” Custer said. “It turns out he’d spent years in prison in California for molesting his grandchildren many years before.”
Danny Smith, owner of DRS Investigation in Boise, once took a case from a father concerned about his 19-year-old son, who was distraught that his online girlfriend had committed suicide.
The couple met in an online video game forum. Their flirting intensified into a romantic relationship over several months. The young man was crushed to hear from a friend of the young woman that she had ended her life.
For the father, that did not add up. His son exchanged messages and photos online, but they had not talked on the phone or done anything else to prove her identity. He called Smith, who discovered the dead woman was actually a teenage boy who had played an elaborate game.
“He didn’t know how to get out of the game,” Smith said. “He faked the death of a fake person just to stop communication and get out of the game.”
Smith knocked on the teen’s door. The teen confessed to Smith and his mother, Smith said.
“This fad of younger generation meeting people online is certainly the devil’s playground,” Smith said. “You have to be really careful to know who you are dealing with.”
Scammers use online dating sites to target lonely and often elderly singles, Custer said. Scammers often fake a romantic interest that quickly escalates into requests for money or bank information, he said.
“They prey on people who want to believe that the interest is true, because they are missing something in their life,” Custer said. “They are lonely and desperate for attention like that.”
In one case, a client was concerned that something fishy was going on with a British man courting her widowed mother online. Their relationship had advanced, and he promised to fly to Idaho to meet in person. But he had excuses why his money was tied up, and he asked the mother to send money for a plane ticket.
“The daughter asked me to find out if the guy existed, and it turned out he did not,” Custer said. “The address was bogus. The name was bogus.”
WHAT ABOUT TRUST?
The red flags have become glaringly obvious to Janell in the five years since Jacobson exposed the double life led by her Los Angeles boyfriend.
He always had excuses why she couldn’t meet his parents. He claimed to have veterans decorations but didn’t seem like the military type.
Janell wishes she had called Jacobson sooner. “I didn’t want to believe it,” she said. “I needed a PI to tell me.”
She hopes her experience hasn’t left her too jaded to embrace future relationships. She is like an elephant, she said: She remembers everything. But she also forgives and has moved on, dating again with a cautious approach.
“There are so many dishonest people out there, but even for me, it’s difficult to think about having to call a private investigator every time,” she said. “I don’t want to go into a relationship in the beginning thinking I can’t trust a person”