By Matthew Chapman
As internet dating booms, both men and particularly women can leave themselves open to exploitation. Here, the tale of an online Romeo who managed to make six women fall in love with him at once.
Musician David Bagg is still in shock six months after his wife walked out on him for a man she had never set eyes on or even spoken to. "This was like a bolt from the blue," the 41-year-old said.
His wife Judy logged on to a website offering online healing last September. She e-mailed Joe Grice, the man who ran the website, asking for help with her arthritis.
Judy's e-mailing began innocently enough. She communicated regularly with Mr Grice for a few minutes every night with her husband's full knowledge.
Her husband said: "She had some concerns about her health and I thought if that helped her then fine. Quite quickly it became more secretive and she would be up in the computer room for hours in the evening."
Chatrooms have become increasingly popular
It was only from looking at his wife's e-mails after she disappeared that Mr Bagg realised what had been happening.
His wife had been meeting Mr Grice in a chatroom and their conversations sometimes lasted hours.
The messages became more explicit over time and Mr Grice eventually suggested he come over from the US to meet Judy. Events came to a head last December when Judy took off.
Not the only one
Five of Judy's friends had also been in e-mail contact with Mr Grice. Amazingly, all six women, two PhD students among them, had fallen in love with this stranger over the course of two months.
One of them, Cheryl, an attractive postgraduate student aged 27 said: "I just can't explain it now. It became so intense it took over my whole life - and yes, I think I did love him in the end."
It was like love bombardment
Her friend and fellow victim Nicola, 26, puts Mr Grice's prowess down to his ability to tell them what they wanted to hear.
She said: "It was like love bombardment. He kept saying how wonderful I was and I fell for it."
Mr Grice encouraged the developing bonds with a simple ruse.
First he instructed all the women not to talk to each other. Then he encouraged each one to tell him secrets about the others. He would then confront the women with these secrets which he said he had gained through his mystical powers.
At one stage the six women - who all lived in Oxford - were online, sometimes simultaneously, as Mr Grice persuaded them to perform sex acts on themselves and urged them to leave their partners. It was only when Judy Bagg disappeared that the other five women came to their senses.
A 'guru' unmasked
Mr Grice is now living in Oxford. The BBC's 5 Live Report has established he is a 49-year-old ex-US Air Force Gulf War veteran who, at the time of his online seductions, was living in a tent in a friend's garden.
There is a tendency to give away a lot about yourself
He has left behind two children and an angry ex-wife who says she has spent several years trying to track him down to recoup a large number of child support payments.
Mr Grice has gone onto newsgroups to claim he is running clinical trials on ME in conjunction with Oxford Brooks University. Yet the university authorities have never heard of him. Neither Mr Grice or Mrs Bagg have commented on the affair.
Click here for love
Experts say the story serves as a cautionary tale of the potential power of the internet - and chat rooms in particular - to warp human relationships.
An online community may feel safer than real life
The boom in internet dating is one area where the vulnerable can be manipulated.
Match.com, one of the largest dating websites, had 1.6 million people posting advertisements in 2001 and the figure is expected to double this year.
While the majority of dates may be successful, it still leaves a lot of lonely-hearts open to being exploited, particularly women, says Jenny Madden, the founder of Women in Cyberspace.
"Women find cyberspace comforting because they are not being judged by their looks," she says. "But they also leave themselves very open to manipulation because there is a tendency, in chat rooms particularly, to give away a lot about yourself very quickly."
David Bagg is hopeful he can someday be reunited with his wife. "I still love her, despite what the Internet did to our relationship," he said.
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