How My Latent Biases Led to Being Scammed

When my husband and I decided to leave California behind and move to Germany in 2015, we figured it would be an adventure, to say the least. 

I took a break from my career in communications and marketing to manage the household, learn some German, and focus on writing a blog and short stories. He was coming off a work hiatus and eager to get back in the game. 

You learn a lot about yourself when you jump into another culture to live. You learn even more when you give up some sense of newfound stability to start over yet again.

After 18 months in Hamburg, my husband was caught in a company layoff--the second round in just six months. He knew it was coming, and had been looking for a new job. But the initial move had depleted our funds, and with a single income we were only slowly building back our nest egg. Could we afford another relocation in less than two years? 

Amid the hand-wringing of where to look, related financial implications, and the whirlwind of global interviews, our 16-year-old cat succumbed to kidney disease. For a no-kids two-cat couple, it was devastating. 

Our cat's response to yet another move.
Then came the stress of the move. From the ultra-competitive Munich housing market where listing agents didn’t even call back, to our first relocation agent who decided she didn’t need the work, to the moving company who decided that two guys would be enough to pack and load us when it had taken four guys to get us here. 

In our final 24 hours in Hamburg, there were last-minute doctor appointments, a late-night/early-morning cleaning and touch-up painting of the apartment, and the beginning of a 6-hour train ride to Bavaria with our resentful remaining cat.

All of this background is to show where my head was at when The Incident happened. The stress, the fatigue, and the reluctance to leave a place I’d come to love may be valid reasons to be off my game. But they could also just be excuses. 

The fact is, I got scammed. 

I cringe as I type it, because this would not have happened to the old me. I was too world-wise and cynical, sure of how things worked (and how they didn’t) to ever be snared by something so stupid. But the new me, the living-abroad me, could be said to be overly accepting about the new world around me. 

That stems, in part, from this inflated idea that I am setting an example as an American: “Hey, we’re not all self-centered isolationists. I’m learning some of the language and culture, I’m trying to be a decent world citizen.” (Especially these days, when everyone wants to understand the whole Trump thing.) 

No robbery, no Nigerian bank scheme.
This was the simple object of deception
So what happened? Long story short: Our new apartment didn't have a refrigerator. A week of negotiaing features led to, where I found a too-good-to-be-true model that fit all of our requirements, including price. After contacting the seller as requested in the listing, and following the instructions for a third-party transaction in the official-looking Amazon email I received, I sent the money, and we waited another several days in vain for our new frig.

Yes, I ignored clear warning signs. You can call it the tragedy of hope or optimism—when you want something so badly you make yourself see the stars aligning in your favor, and squelch any tinges of skepticism.

It's that hubris I mentioned above, taken to extreme, that led to my downfall. I got conned because of my unconscious bias about my own country--that we Americans have cornered the market on greed and opportunism, so surely I could let my guard down in my new life. 

In trying to focus so much on equality of thought, I forgot to consider all aspects of that equality. That it's okay to be cautious. Not because something is different, but because when something in you says this feels wrong, you need to learn more about it.

As I forgive myself for that part of my error, I have to come to grips with the other half. I truly believe it's an incomparable privilege to be an American, and to be able to criticize and praise my home equally. So where did this bias come from? 

Is it my reaction to our uneasy political climate and increased tolerance of bigotry? Is it born of the influence of the people around me? (I have been flabbergasted by some of the ideas locals and expats from other countries have about life in America.) 

It's something I need to explore further, but I think recognizing it is my first step forward. In the meantime, what do I do? Do I tell myself, “I told you so,” and go back to looking at the unfamiliar through skeptical eyes? Do I turn complex shades of different behaviors and customs into black-and-white comparisons of good v. bad or better v. worse? 

Even if I wanted to,  I don’t think I can. Not anymore. I think you are who you are at your core, but the layers you wear to protect that inner you can shrink, wear out, or just not feel flattering anymore. I’ve kept the pieces I want to keep from my old life, and shed the ones that were holding me back. 

It’s good to move forward with my eyes more open, but it needs to be matched by my ears and my mouth and my heart. I should think of the example I want to set as a human being, and not always think I have to pick up the mantle of my country or my race or whatever affiliation might have some stake in a particular situation.

There’s much more for me to learn about myself and the world around me, and I want to spend the rest of my life traveling down that path. 

I guess now I just have to be a bit more mindful of the ruts in the road. 


  1. NOOOOOOOOOO! I am so sorry that happened to you! (AND what would it be like to blame the person that took advantage of you rather than a trust-the-world, don't-be-an-American-asshole view?)

  2. Hi Michelle,

    I too am an ex-pat but from the UK, we arrived here in Puglia, southern Italy, 10 years ago and boy oh boy, was it a learning curve.

    The scammers descended like locusts, all lovely, very friendly and of course all completely HONEST, warning us about everyone else who would rob us blind, but of course not them, oh no, they were our friends and would look after us, after two robberies, one with guns, we were ready to run away with our tails between our legs, but once you get used to the corruption and begin to understand the 'Good the bad and the ugly, then recognise them from a mile away, life begins to settle down to a steady wariness, in Italy you soon find out the corruption is stronger than religion and babies learn it before they dirty their first nappy. Everyone and I really mean EVERYONE practices corruption every day, but dare you accuse anyone that you catch with his hand in your pocket holding your wallet of being a tea leaf and he will be mortally offended. A policeman told me that I must never carry more than 10 Euro in my back pocket, then if I ever get stopped by the police and they want to fine you 50 Euro for some made up charge, you just reach into that pocket and produce your ten euro note, shrug your shoulders, look them in the eye and say that is all you have, they will give you a glare that could curdle milk at ten paces and just wave you off with a few unsavoury words, he will have to pay for his own lunch that day.

    When we purchased this villa, we also purchased all of the furniture, but when we arrived the villa was completely stripped bare, not even a single tap remained, but the nice guy who stole it all felt sorry for us and came round to see if he could help by selling some of it back to us. He was so shocked when we said that we had already paid for it once so why should we pay again. Another shoulder shrug and off he went murmuring about these bloody stupid English. Ho-Hum. My wife got fed up early on and decided that an old friend in the UK was a better prospect than little old me and ran off one day never to be seen again.

    So here I am five years later, a bit scarred by life's mishaps waiting for my princess to arrive into my life floating on her golden cloud to rescue me from my solitary and very lonely life here in paradise.

    Good luck to you in Germany and remember that scammers are everywhere, just waiting for that millisecond when your guard is down and then they pounce.

    Have fun and smile, it drives scammers mad to see you happy.

    Much love