EXCLUSIVE: Love in the time of Facebook
A Manti Te'o hoax in the Philippines
(All names of the individuals involved in this case have been changed to protect the identity of the "catfishing" victim. -- Editor's note)
MANILA – This is one love story for the books, or Facebook, to be more precise.
For two years, she knew she had a boyfriend. For two years, she knew she was in love.
Loida, a 34-year-old government employee who graduated from one of the country's premiere universities, recently realized that her long-distance boyfriend was only made up by someone, whose intentions until now she is not sure of.
For two years, she exchanged text messages with Martin, a man who claimed to be a Filipino engineer based in the United States.
Almost everyday in those two years, Loida spent hours exchanging sweet nothings with Martin through SMS and social networking site Facebook.
Loida never doubted the authenticity of Martin's identity despite the presence of some "red flags" in the latter's stories and actions. This was the case until her colleagues and friends finally intervened and made her realize that the man she loves does not exist in real life.
Loida's story is similar to that of Manti Te'o's, an American college football player who was duped into having an online relationship with a non-existent woman.
She is a victim of what people calls "catfishing" – where a person pretends to be someone he or she is not on Facebook or other social networking sites to pursue deceptive online romances leading to fraud.
Like Te'o, Loida never met the other party in person. She said Martin had promised her he will go back to the Philippines and finally meet her. Three times, those meetings failed due to "unforeseen" circumstances.
Despite being miles apart, Loida managed to maintain the two-year relationship, and even went on to make decisions that she now regrets.
No phone calls, video chats
It all started when Loida met Angela, a friend, in 2011.
Angela supposedly had a boyfriend based in the US, named Leonard Angeles, at the time she renewed acquaintances with Loida. For some reason Loida does not know, Leonard got hold of her number and began sending text messages to her in January 2011.
Loida felt uncomfortable with Leonard sending her text messages, prompting her to tell Angela about it. Leonard eventually stopped sending messages to Loida but gave the latter's number to Martin, who then offered his friendship to the unwitting victim.
Even though she felt uneasy at first, Loida eventually fell for Martin's sweet words. The first three months, according to Loida, was a "getting-to-know" period for both of them.
"Sweet siya, caring, basta mabait siya. [Sinasabi niya] 'I love you,' 'kain ka na.' Kapag papasok ng office sasabihin niya 'ingat ka,'" Loida said.
Loida eventually made the "relationship" formal. On January 14 – three day's before Martin's supposed birthday – she finally agreed to make their relationship official.
"Si Martin, 'di naman kasi ako tinitigilan i-text. Parang nakikipag-kaibigan hanggang sa sinasabi na niya sa akin na parang nagugustuhan niya na ako," she said. "Naisip ko wala namang mawawala sa akin."
Loida felt more than comfortable being in the company of Angela and another friend, Jackie, since all of them were in the same situation and their boyfriends were "related" to each other.
She said Jackie's long-distance boyfriend, George, is a cousin of both Martin (maternal) and Leonard (paternal).
Days into their blossoming relationship and still without an idea of how Martin's voice sounds like, Loida proposed to her new boyfriend that they talk over the phone.
Martin, however, claimed he lives in a barracks inside the Pentagon building in Washington along with George and Leonard.
Both supposedly allowed him to stay there even if he was not a US government employee. Being inside a heavily monitored building, Martin could not just make outbound calls.
The Internet connection inside the supposed "barracks", Martin claimed, was also limited and they cannot hold any video chats.
Nonetheless, Martin gave in to Loida's request that he make a Facebook account. Loida then met Martin's supposed relatives through a private group in the social networking site.
Strangely, Martin also used a number with a Philippine area code. When Loida asked why he uses a Philippine number, Martin again gave the strict security inside the barracks as the reason.
For most people, Martin's reasons are lousy and proof that he is lying. Loida, however, did not doubt her boyfriend's claims.
"Ewan ko ba kung anong iniisip ko noon," she lamented.
Loida quits MA course, almost ditched work
As time passed, Martin had become demanding, asking her to always text him of her whereabouts, she said.
"Ang demand lang niya sa akin, is to text him kapag paalis na ng bahay, pag nakarating ng office at pag pauwi na ako, at parating ng bahay," she said.
In retrospect, Loida realized that the person who created the Martin character wanted to take her life away from her.
Indeed, the culprit (or culprits) succeeded. Loida shut off her friends and colleagues from her life.
She said her friends' constant questioning of the legitimacy of her boyfriend made the severing of ties easier for her.
She also stopped taking her master's degree program at the request of Martin.
"So I had to stop kasi nga 'yung sked ko ng class is gabi. Time for him daw iyun, since nahirapan akong i-manage, tumigil ako," she said.
Loida held on to the relationship, especially after Martin promised to come to the Philippines in April 2011 after quitting his "job". However, that promise was not fulfilled when Martin allegedly had to stay for a year more since he had to take charge of his father's "business".
"Ang sabi ko, wala naman akong magagawa, nung time na iyun - April, three months [na ang nakaraan nang naging kami]. Ang sabi ko nandito na lang din ako, might as well na ituloy ko na lang," she said.
Loida and Martin also underwent what most couples go through – they fight and then make up.
Loida admitted she had to buy prepaid credits for Martin. She said Martin specifically told her to buy the cards from Jackie, whose aunt owns a cell phone credit business.
She said she had spent a cumulative amount of P15,000 from October 2011 - the month she started buying prepaid credits from Jackie - until January 2013.
Loida also shelled out P15,000 in December 2012, when his "father" got confined in an alleged hospital inside the Pentagon and had to send text messages to some "business partners."
With her relationship with her former classmates and friends at work already cold as ice, Loida spent more time with Angela and Jackie. She even committed prolonged absences at work just to accompany the two.
No longer able to bear the absence of her beloved, in October 2012, Loida told Martin of her intention to secure a fiancée visa. Martin then said he will take care of the visa application since George supposedly knows someone who can process one.
The supposed "interview" for the application, strangely, only took place over SMS – another red flag Loida ignored.
Nothing happened with the visa application. Loida said Martin told her that they had to stop processing the visa after they found out that one of the lawyers arranging the visa application got involved in an illicit affair with Leonard's father.
To fill the void created by the absence of physical intimacy, Loida admitted that she had sent a topless photo of herself to Martin.
Asked about her fear of the photo being spread, Loida said: "That's my worry. It might damage my reputation which I have taken care of for many years."
Last January, Martin demanded that Loida resign from her work, with a promise of a top-level position in a Cavite-based company his father bought.
Loida acceded to Martin's request. This move prompted her concerned colleague-friends to finally step in and investigate. Her boss, already aware of her situation, did not accept her resignation.
True enough, the suspicions of her friends had a basis.
Loida's colleague and close friend, Anthony, said he found out that the Facebook profile photo used by Martin's father belonged to a one-time acquaintance of his named Alex.
Anthony contacted Alex through Facebook, and learned that the latter's account belongs to Jackie's "network" of friends. Some people in the network were also Jackie's relatives.
Further probing revealed that the photos used in the accounts of George, Leonard, Martin and their supposed relatives came from the same network.
Moreover, Anthony learned that the photos used by George and Leonard in their Facebook profiles belonged to Jackie's nephews.
The photo used for Martin's account, meanwhile, belonged to another person in the same network.
It was only when she learned of the deception that Loida began to look into it herself.
Loida went to Jackie's house to find any evidence against her. She found one – a diary – which contained the same questions the supposed lawyer processing her visa asked her.
"When I was told na hoax, naghanap ako ng evidence na si Jackie nga. Meron siyang diary, tinignan ko yun, patago iyun. Nandoon ako sa room, si Jackie had to bathe her pamangkin. Pagkakataon ko na, nakita ko ang diary. Two pages, nandoon lahat ng questions ng lawyer. Nandoon ang name ng lawyer, tapos may mga time kung kelan ako na-interview. Eto na yung inaantay kong proof. Kasi nga, I can't remember discussing with her kung ano ang mga questions sa akin," she said.
Jackie cannot be reached through phone anymore.
Loida and her friends suspect that Jackie started hiding when her relatives in the United States learned of the incident. As for Angela, Loida is not yet sure whether she is part of the scheme.
Until now, Loida remains befuddled as to why someone would do that to her – invest so much time and energy by pretending to be her boyfriend for two years.
Loida sought the help of the Philippine National Police – Criminal Investigation and Detection Group (PNP – CIDG) on Thursday. She said the police promised to identify the real people behind the scheme.
She said the police suspect that Jackie and and Angela were cohorts, and may have actually used fake identities since the beginning.
"Ang closest motive na naisip nila is Jackie and Angela have a relationship and they're using me for convenience because I have credit cards na pwede silang maki-ride and my house is near a lot of malls where they can hang out," she said.
Loida admitted that Jackie also used her credit card in purchasing a cellphone. She was advised to send Jackie a demand letter asking Jackie to pay the item. An estafa case may be filed if Jackie ignores the demand.
According to Loida, the CIDG considers her case a rare one, since most of the cases the have handled involved extortion using money wire transfer services.
"'Yung load daw kasi cannot be considered as an extortion bilang walang proof na na-load nga yung mga numbers," she said.
A cyber-bullying case can also be filed once the temporary restraining order on the Anti-Cybercrime Act gets lifted, Loida said.
Loida admitted that until now, she still misses Martin. "Yes, I miss him. But my friends often remind me that Martin does not exist, so I just try to brush off the feeling," she said.
"No love life muna. I need to find myself again because for two years nawala ako. So what I plan to do is renew my friendships, attend choir practices again, join sponsored activities by my agency, and if kakayanin, pursue my master's degree again."
Asked about what her response would be to people who will ridicule her upon learning of her story, she said: "I only wanted to be with the man that I love that's why I held on despite all the difficulties and trials in our relationship.
"I wanted to fight for love; that someday I may prove to everyone that I made the right decision and that I would be happily married, have kids, and live my dream to have my own family."
Martin was Loida's first boyfriend.