As I often do when visiting a new country for the first time, I asked a number of people I met in Kiev what one thing best describes Ukrainians. Without exception, they all proclaimed, “We want to be free.”
My first foray into the city center reinforced what I’d been told. At Independence Square, a giant mural proclaimed “Freedom is our Religion!” The Square, which locals refer to as “Maidan,” was ground zero for the 2013/14 Ukrainian Revolution that ousted the corrupt Communist regime. Not only had the freedom fighters succeeded, but Maidan had been given a shiny new face. Of the destruction and fires that had raged through the square three years earlier, not a single sign remained.
I was impressed. Ukrainians seemed passionately devoted to the pursuit of freedom. But my bubble burst when I sat down in a cute little French cafe just steps off the Maidan. Within moments, the twenty-something Ukrainian woman seated at the adjacent table began selling her soul. Her lunch companion, a Cuban-American man who had traveled to Kiev to meet what are commonly referred to as Ukraine brides, spent the better part of the next hour interviewing the woman. Was she attracted to him? Could she see herself in a committed relationship with him? She tossed her long fire-engine red hair and answered flippantly, “No,” and, “No.” Carlos (not his real name), realizing this was not the soul mate he had hoped for, spent the balance of the “date” asking his companion to share what she knew about the Ukraine brides scam. Fascinated, I eavesdropped as she obliged.
The online dating scam is not new. A Google search for the phrase “Ukraine brides for sale” returns nearly 300,000 websites. Agencies offer a wide variety of packages for prospective husbands, but there are some common denominators. Almost all sites allow users to sign up for free, create a profile, upload photos, and read the profiles of the women who are purportedly looking for a husband. But actual contact with any of the women requires a fee.
After the red-head departed, I introduced myself to Carlos and asked if he would be willing to share his experience with me. Over the next month, he divulged what he’d learned about the Ukraine Brides scam in a series of emails:
“It is without a doubt a hustle. I had correspondence with that lady if I can call her that for months, and well, you heard the conversation. They will charge me 75 dollars to meet each of the three ladies. Yes I can hear you thinking why pay for this? But I’m already here and have nothing else to do so I may as well see it all the way through.
After this, if the dates don’t pan through I will never have anything to do with foreign dating. Once you meet the girl and sign off on the form, the agency loses all form of their revenue. But by then they have milked you dry. Even so people like me and two other gentlemen I met at the office, both from Florida by the way, did it a little bit smarter than others who go to the tours. While I pay a grand for airfare, five hundred on hotel, the letters and all the other smaller stuff, these guys fork out thousands for these tours. Way to expensive for me. Don’t know who fares better, or if anyone does.”
The letters that Carlos referred to are known as the “pay per letter (PPL) dating scam.” Claiming that the women don’t speak English (most of them actually do), the agencies charge $10 for translators to handle each letter sent or received. Messages, texts, and video chats are also available on a pay-per-minute basis. A photo of the woman will cost a love-struck man $3. PPL sites also arrange for gifts such as flowers, candy, electronics, and even English lessons to be delivered to the women. The men have no idea that the women, who encourage these “gifts,” share in the profits from their sale.
Some of the men eventually opt to travel to Ukraine to meet the women with whom they’ve been corresponding. This was the fourth trip for Carlos.
“When I first started this Search, I joined a site called blue sapphires. Yes you paid for the letters and it was a business, but that agency was not as cut throat as the agencies now. (They) have become much more money grubbing from the one I first started with. These girls want to write almost every day. I cut it to once a week. The red head said it was a fix, and she was part of it. I paid one hundred plus for an opera ticket for her, but “B” (another male client) told me the tickets in Kiev sold for about twenty US dollars. Another mark up. When I first started I came to Kiev and visited the dating office and they would set me up with girl after girl for free on my stay. Now they charge you seventy five dollars to contact every girl at the agency when you’re there.
You asked which was cheaper, my way or through a group tour. My way is definitely cheaper, though I still spent a lot. What I learned from “B” and “M”… is to not write the ladies until a week or so before your trip. That way they are familiar with you, but you haven’t already spent fifteen hundred in correspondence. Smart trick I did not think about. Still, I paid…for the plane tickets, the hotel, food, and extra stuff. These guys pay three grand right off the bat, plus whatever extra they need for the trip. I don’t like the idea of cattle call meetings, plus three grand up front is way too much for me…I hear most of them don’t succeed, but hey, neither did I. Bottom line, it is a scam of sorts. But there are women looking to get married. I think guys my age and older need to keep in mind that the younger girls won’t want to marry older guys, unless as the red head said you’re rich or look like Johnny Depp, but who would want such a woman. The red head did me a big favor and opened my eyes somewhat.”
As bad as this all sounds, Kiev can’t hold a candle to what goes on in Odessa. Sure enough, within 24-hours of my arrival in Odessa, I was observing a Ukraine brides date at Tagliatelle Italian Restaurant. The waitress and I whispered and laughed about the situation. “Sometimes the same man will come into the restaurant four or five days in a row, each time with different woman,” she said. “I wait on him three times a day but he always act like he doesn’t know me. One time, a man came here to eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner for seven days. He has a different woman each time, but still he act like he not know me.” She also said the men always come “with a friend, maybe a sister, who helps them talk to the women.” I explained that these are not friends. They are translators, who are required to be present throughout the meeting, even though most of the women speak perfectly good English. Of course, the men are charged a hefty fee for this “service.”
Most of the women have become pros at milking men who are driven as much by loneliness as lust. They accept the inevitable marriage proposal but insist they cannot leave Ukraine until some event happens. Her mother is in the hospital and she needs money to pay the bill. She cannot leave her parents, who are poor, unless their home is paid off. She needs money wired to pay for her visa and airfare. Some even pretend to fly to the U.S. or Europe, then call to say they have been denied entry.
The longer I stayed, the more evidence I saw of what must be one of Ukraine’s largest cottage industries. It seems ironic that Ukrainians, who were for decades bilked of their natural resources and freedom by a corrupt regime, have chosen to focus so heartily on a scam that bilks others of their hard-earned money. It was a black mark that made it difficult to appreciate the otherwise rich culture of the country.