Monday, May 15, 2006

Utah Rising - The Western Union Edition

He was disappointed his first morning in town. After driving through the night from Kyiv, Utah Rising had expected to meet the young woman he’d been communicating with through email for several weeks. Let’s call her Natalya. But Natalya failed to call the apartment he’d rented, and her mobile phone was busy all that first day. By six o’clock, when Utah Rising finally got her on the phone, he learned, through the interpreter who spoke with her, that she wouldn’t be able to make it today, that she was leaving in an hour to visit her grandparents, but could she please call when she got back on Sunday?

Mr. Utah told his interpreter to hang up – “Just hang up,” he said. Because Natalya had known about his trip for weeks, and if she was treating him way this way now, how would it be during their marriage?

He should’ve known better, he told me the following evening. He’d sent her a dress cowboy hat in the run-up to this, his first visit to Ukraine, and she’d never even said thank you. And then too there was the incident with Western Union.

Utah Rising had been paying $6 to send this young woman an email, then another $6 to get each translated reply. All of this was done through the marriage agency that had facilitated their introduction, Anastasia Web.

Utah Rising told Natalya it’d be a lot cheaper to exchange email addresses and do this without a third party, but she resisted, saying the marriage agency provided her with a place to use the internet free of charge. If money was a factor (and in Kharkov fees run between sixty cents and $1.40 per hour at an internet cafĂ©), Utah Rising said he’d be happy to send her some money. She explained Western Union would be best.

“If she was a scammer,” he said, “she was really smart, because she never asked for money.”

Whatever the case, she was smart with more than just him, as Utah Rising learned when he called up Western Union to make a $100 transfer.

“I really shouldn’t be doing this,” the operator told him, “but do you know this woman?”

The man at the call center explained that in the last two weeks, she’d received transfers from six men, each time for between $100 and $400. It was all right there on the computer screen, paid out to the same location in Ukraine, where the average monthly salary is perhaps $150 or $200 per month.

When Utah Rising reported this woman to Anastasia web (a company with offices in Maine and partner agencies throughout the Former Soviet Union) he thought the company would be quick to act. They had an "anti-scammer" policy, after all. But one day after reporting the woman's behavior, he was informed that she would remain on the website and that they didn't believe her to be a scammer.

"Did you investigate her?" he asked.

They said they didn't believe that necessary. And how did they reach that conclusion? Maybe it was the best intelligence available at the time.

"Tell me honestly," Utah Rising asked me the following evening, over dinner at a cafe near Svobody Square. "What do you think of what I'm doing? Good, bad, indifferent, I can handle it. Just tell me what you think. What are my chances?"

I should've reminded him it was a Friday night and he was having dinner with a journalist.