The Set Up
I suffer from a not-so-secret addiction. I rather obsessively play Words With Friends. I downloaded it to my iPhone in 2009, a month or so after it was launched, and I have been playing steadily ever since. According to the app, I have completed 5,423 games. No lie. I suppose I could (should?) feel bad about the time I have wasted playing this silly game, but I don’t. This game is brain food. I am keeping my mind sharp, attempting to stave off the Alzheimer’s that runs in my family. Yep. That’s what I tell myself.
During the past year or so, I began finding random males starting new games with me more often than before. It took me a while to determine that these men found me through the Lightning Round section of the app. At first, naive gal that I am, I simply accepted the games without question because, did I mention, I am addicted? Any new game is one more game than I had before, which is a good thing, right? Maybe not.
Last weekend I had some downtime and spent about an hour playing Lightning Rounds. When I finished, I noticed that I had 12 new games waiting for me. Twelve. All were from men I did not know. All had chat requests pending. I showed my phone to my husband and told him I was going to open a can of worms by accepting all the game play and chatting with these guys. Curiosity had gotten the best of me. What was their deal?
From the minuscule photos the app allows you to post (they seem smaller and smaller as my eyes get older and older), the men appeared to be between the ages of 40-60. All of them had accounts that had been started within the last nine months, most started within the last week, which was the first red flag. Nearly all of them used two first names as their user names, names like Christopher Matthew, names that would be hard to research. Most of the photos showed respectable looking men, although some appeared to be stock photos rather than personal ones.
Their initial contact with me varied. Some simply started with a basic hello, while others added a compliment or a pet name, hello my dear or hello beautiful. Okay. Whatever. I played my turns and responded honestly but succinctly to their questions, trying not to give away too much personal info but still offering enough so they would continue the game and the conversation. All the while I played investigative reporter, digging for dirt, trying to get at what lurked beneath the surface.
My initial assumption was that these men (fingers crossed) were using WWF as a dating app. Maybe WWF was, as my son suggested, Tinder for old people. He looked at the photos and brutally surmised that “those are the men who can’t mate, Mom, because the ones who can don’t have to go on a word game to do it.” So, there you have it. Perhaps these men were attracted to fifty-one year old me, but only because they couldn’t mate with anyone else. But, I digress.
As the chats wore on, I began to notice patterns in the different conversations. While it seemed that two of the men were legitimate human beings looking for a love/sex connection (their accounts had been active for months and not days), the other ten were something else entirely. Those men either claimed to be Americans living overseas or foreigners living in the US, which explained to some extent their less than stellar English grammar. They almost always said what city they were from and followed it with a state name written out fully, not abbreviated. Tell me. How many Americans do you know who will tell you they are from Las Vegas, Nevada, or Houston, Texas, rather than simply saying they’re from Vegas or Houston? Some of them used their broken English to extoll my “beauty.” Most of them had far-fetched but intriguing job descriptions. When the first one claimed to be a diplomat in the Middle East on a peacekeeping mission, I giggled to myself. By the time the third one mentioned a peacekeeping mission, it didn’t seem as funny. Another few guys mentioned being contractors who worked in drilling, specifically mentioning oil fields near Aberdeen, the Gulf of Mexico, or the Nevada desert. Their stories contained enough verifiable information to make them seem credible, but they were also just quirky enough (and somehow close enough to other tales I was reading) for me to understand these were frauds.
I continued chatting and taking screen shots of conversations and sharing them with my husband who got as caught up in my experiment as I was. My favorite chat was with a guy who claimed to be one Paul Bauman. Because his name seemed plausible and was accompanied by what appeared to be a legitimate photo of a high-ranking, career military officer, I conducted a Google search and discovered the real Paul Bauman is a Brigadier General working at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. Ummm…yeah. The conversation became even more curious when less than a day later he told me that he wanted my email address so we could always keep in touch and, because he was in a war zone, he might not be available for days. Uh huh. It’s common practice for a Brigadier General to tell random women he chats with on Words With Friends about his covert missions. Seems legit.
In the forty-eight hours I conducted my chat experiment, my contact with these (ahem) gentlemen eventually led to each of them asking me to chat with them on Google Hangouts (wasn’t that being shut down?) or What’s App. All of my chats ended only one of two ways. They either determined I was not going to be a willing and easy target and stopped playing with me (the next day I noticed the game was missing from my feed and their user name had been deleted) or I would have to block them when they unrelentingly pestered me for my phone number and/or email address after I had plainly and repeatedly stated that I do not share that information.
There’s a reason why I have, in the past, eschewed games from random males who start them. Even on an innocuous app like Word With Friends, there is always opportunity for someone to take advantage of the kindness/decency/loneliness/naivety of others. Sharing personal information on the Internet often can lead to hacked accounts and even identity theft. Sure. There are some people out there who may legitimately be looking to meet the next great love of their life through an app like Words with Friends, but it’s less likely than you might expect or hope. Most of the Casanovas on WWF might be, as my son suspects, scammers on their computers somewhere in Asia (hence the serviceable yet oddly formal, broken English) trying to gain access to your accounts by collecting your email and using personal information you share to crack your passwords or, worse, people who will prey upon your emotional vulnerability to befriend and then defraud you after you’ve taken them in.
I’m not saying Words With Friends is a den of iniquity. It is, after all, just a word game. But you might want to watch which words you share with people who might not be your friend after all. On the plus side, after my little experiment, my husband now sends me WWF chats that mimic the messages I received last week. He’s pretty funny and, luckily, not just some poor guy who can’t mate.