Jan's birthday

Although Janice narrowly escaped being scammed of her money, she felt cheated of her love, energy and trust. All photos courtesy of Janice Liow.

When Janice Liow hit 40, she plucked up the courage to give online dating a shot.

As a divorcee with two children – aged 6 and 10 then – the idea of going into middle age and beyond as a single parent was a frightening one, as she had always envisioned herself having a partner to grow old with.

There was a vacuum in her heart, and a strong desire to have a “complete” family for her two children. Yet she also questioned whether she was good enough or attractive enough to find someone who would be willing to take care of her and her children for the rest of their lives.

Janice with her two sons.

Her friends urged her to open herself up to dating again; one of them told her that her sister had met her husband online.  

“I was in a vulnerable place then. I decided not to be square and open myself up to online dating as a way to find opportunities to make friends,” said Janice, who finalised her divorce in 2010.

In 2013, she put up her profile on OkCupid, a dating app. She engaged in conversations with a few men but those exchanges, except for one, fizzled out. She seemed to be able to connect with the slightly older man who said he was from eastern Europe. He quickly took their conversation away from the app onto the Whatsapp text messaging platform instead.

His story paralleled hers: He said he was a widower with two children; his wife had died in a road traffic accident.

Feeling seen and known 

He asked after her frequently, and she was open and trusting in sharing about her life. She talked about how drained she felt as she juggled a full-time job and parented two children on her own.

He listened and was always sympathetic. After some time, she felt that he seemed to know her really well.

Won over by his consideration for her children, she was happy when he later talked about migrating to Singapore.

His sweet words also made her feel important. After a long day at work, it was emotionally reassuring for her to receive messages from him. It helped her unwind from the day’s stresses.

She would have short conversations with him before heading off to prepare dinner for her children.

“Whatever issues I talked about, he would attend to them, reply or have some nice things to say,” said Janice, who works as a counsellor.

He told her that he was working in the United States in the construction industry, and his Facebook profile had a few pictures of him and his children. From the pictures, he also seemed to enjoy sports.

“He showered me with affection and told me I was the one for him, as he felt I was different from other girls he had talked to. What touched me was his showing a lot of concern for my two children,” said Janice.

For instance, they had moved from exchanging text messages to talking on the phone after a month. One night, while she was talking to him in her room, her son kept knocking on the door to get her attention. She told her son she was on the phone. When the man heard what was happening over the phone, he reminded her that her children were more important and to tend to their needs first.

“He told me not to worry, and that we could talk again another time. He spoke confidently, though in broken English as it was apparently not his first language,” she said.

Won over by his consideration for her children, she was happy when he later talked about migrating to Singapore, bringing his two children over to join her family and buying an apartment in Singapore.  

Janice pursued further studies when her children grew older.

“It gave me hope that this relationship was God’s answer to my prayer. I thought I was given a second chance to have my children grow up in a complete family. I was grateful to God because it felt like a miracle to meet someone who loved me so much that he would be willing to settle down in Singapore and plan for a future together,” said Janice.

She had been fervent and active in church as a teenager, but became less engaged in church after she got married. She later grew even more distant from God after the marital counselling she sought at the church failed to save her marriage.

Meeting up in Singapore 

A few months after she first met him online, he started making concrete plans to meet up with her. As a contractor, he said he travelled to different parts of the world to clear land and supply heavy machinery to other companies.

She was pleased at the prospect of finally seeing him face to face, after receiving constant affectionate messages.

“He said he had some work to wrap up in Malaysia and after that, he would come to Singapore to visit me,” Janice told Salt&Light.

She was pleased at the prospect of finally seeing him face to face, after receiving constant affectionate messages from him about how he loved her and was thinking about her.

He gave her his flight details and timing to Malaysia. Though she did not suspect him of possibly lying to her, she took precautions and did her due diligence of checking on the flight. She found that there was indeed such a flight.

When he supposedly arrived in Malaysia, he called her to chat about who he was meeting there and also finalised with her the details of when he would be coming to Singapore.

“I noticed that he was calling from a number that had a different country code from his usual number. That convinced me that he was in Malaysia. I was very excited that he was so near to me,” admitted Janice.

A release fee of USD $40,000

A few days later, he called her while she was out for lunch.

“He told me that he needed to pay the Malaysian government a release fee before the Malaysian company – his client – could pay him for the completion of the project. He asked to borrow USD$40,000 from me,” said Janice.

She was shocked and in disbelief of what she had just heard.

“Though I was not walking with God at the time, He was watching over me and He had my back.”

Immediately, she heard the voice of her best friend ringing in her head, asking her to promise that she would never give money to anyone she had not met in person.

She also recalled previously being asked to help talk a 60-year-old woman out of a “relationship”; the woman had been adamant about being with the man even though she had already lost her life savings and inheritance to him.

While these thoughts were running through her mind, her heart did not want to believe that he was a love scammer. Her brain was still mentally tabulating how much she had in her savings and whether she could help him.

“I knew I was vulnerable and could make a wrong move, so I asked him to ask his business partners and family for the money, and quickly ended the call,” said Janice.

As she drove back to work, she heard a whisper saying: “Wake up, Janice.”

“I knew it was from God as I would not address myself in the third person. Though I was not walking with Him at the time, He was watching over me and He had my back,” she said.

Although she longed for the relationship to continue and to hang on to the hope of a better and fuller life, she began to have clarity over the situation.

“I was quite shaky and I called my best friend to tell her what had happened. She felt sorry for me and reminded me to be strong. She did not judge me but made herself available to me,” said Janice.

Janice and her best friend on their travels.

By the time she knocked off from work, she had partially accepted the reality that he was not who he claimed to be. Yet there was still a part of her that hoped he would call her back to say he managed to get the funds and had sorted things out, and would be coming to Singapore.

In the evening, she texted him to inform him that she was not comfortable lending him money at such an early stage of their relationship.

“He called me back and said he managed to sell off his expensive watches to raise the money but was still short of $10,000. He sounded really desperate and asked for my help,” said Janice. By then, the reality that he was a scammer sank in.

“How could I be so foolish? I was a counsellor and I had also seen how this had happened to others.”

She spent the next few hours processing what had just happened. Upon reflection, she remembered a few red flags that she had missed or glossed over.

A glaring one was when she once questioned him on why the various photos he had sent over did not seem to look like the same person.

“He was upset when I brought it up, and accused me of not believing him. I subsequently forgot about the matter,” said Janice.

Another red flag was when he told her not to inform her family about his upcoming visit as he preferred to give them a surprise.

Armed with these tell-tale signs that gave her additional evidence that she had been duped, she wrote him an email to confront him about the matter. She told him that she was willing to forgive him but urged him to repent and to stop cheating others.

When his email reply came, it was nasty.

“He called me ‘bad’ and ‘useless’, and said it was no wonder that my husband left me. I did not read the rest of the email to protect myself from the verbal and emotional abuse,” said Janice.

The email was the final confirmation for her that he was not the person that she thought he was.

Cheated of her love, energy and trust

“I felt very sad, hurt and betrayed. I could not accept that there are people out there who could do this to others. The bubble that I was in burst,” said Janice.

She grieved over the loss and could not eat or sleep well for the next few days.

Though she narrowly escaped being scammed of her money, she felt cheated of her love, energy and trust.

“I realised God can complete my family and we can still live a full life having the joy of the Lord.”

Self-condemnation and self-blame also set in.

“You are so stupid, I said to myself. How could anyone be so stupid? I was a counsellor and I had also seen how this had happened to others. I began believing the devil’s lies and accusations about myself,” said Janice. As a counsellor, she knew – theoretically – that it was dangerous for someone she just knew to parachute so quickly into her inner circle, yet she still went ahead against rational logic.

It was one of the lowest moments in her life. During this time, she happened to bump into her son’s godma who urged her to join RiverLife Church in her neighbourhood, upon learning that she was not attending any church at the time.

Janice was skeptical about returning to church. As a divorcee, she did not feel like she was a good Christian. She also remembered the disappointment and hurts she felt while she was attending her previous church.

Nonetheless, she decided to visit RiverLife at least once, so that her two sons might try out its Sunday school programme as well. 

Her return to church ended up touching a deep chord in her.

“I cried during worship, repented and connected with God. The people were genuinely warm and I felt God’s presence,” said Janice.

Filling the vacuum in her heart 

The vacuum in her heart, which existed even when she was still married, began to be filled by God.

“I decided to focus on nurturing the relationships that God had already placed in my life.”

“The void slowly disappeared. I could be still and quiet on a daily basis, and not be afraid of the silence in my mind. I realised God can complete my family and we can still live a full life having the joy of the Lord, instead of waiting for someone to complete our family,” said Janice.

As she spent time with God in church and talked to Him during her weekly walks, her heart shifted.

Instead of not being able to forgive herself for committing a foolish mistake, she extended grace to herself.

“My friends told me I was the victim of organised syndicates who first profile their victims, then manipulate them by coming up with well-oiled scripts that matched their vulnerabilities,” said Janice.

“Instead of blaming myself, I began to see myself differently. I am not stupid. I was an unsuspecting victim who was strong enough to muster up the courage to give relationships another chance. That helped me to forgive myself,” she added.

Janice and her sons with their former cell group.

Janice’s sons enjoying time with their peers at church camp.

Her cell group in church also gave her a glimpse of how authentic and meaningful relationships can be life giving. She learnt how to be a better parent from the older parents in the group. The many aunties and uncles in the group played with her sons and helped them to feel loved.

“God sent these friends into my life and they saw my kids grow up. I decided to focus on nurturing the relationships that God had already placed in my life instead of feeling deprived and expecting that one person to fill the vacuum of my relational needs,” said Janice.

Janice fellowshipping with other women from her former cell group.

As a single parent, Janice clings on to God’s promise of His provision and peace in Philippians 4:6-7 whenever she feels anxious about her family’s daily needs.

Creating communities of support

She has also learnt to turn her focus from herself to helping others around her, especially those who are experiencing some degree of isolation and loneliness.

“I have learnt to cling on to the everlasting and unconditional love of God.”

When the Covid pandemic hit, she found out that an elderly woman who lived alone in her block had jumped to her death.

Being an extrovert and having the gift of bringing people together to form communities, Janice started rallying neighbours to go door to door to check up on singles, elderly persons and families who needed support. With their consent, she then started a chat group where neighbours in her block could offer practical help to each other.

Having trusted community is key to helping people avoid love scams, or to recovering from it yourself, Janice said.

“You need to have someone you are accountable to in order to spot red flags you may have missed. If you have been scammed, you also need to turn to pastoral care or professional support to work through issues of self-blame and self-condemnation,” said Janice.

“Our self-worth is not determined solely by intimate love. I have learnt to cling on to the everlasting and unconditional love of God.”


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About the author

Janice Tai

Salt&Light senior writer Janice is a former correspondent who enjoys immersing herself in: 1) stories of the unseen, unheard and marginalised, 2) the River of Life, and 3) a refreshing pool in the midday heat of Singapore.