WEST CHESTER TOWNSHIP, Ohio — Marie Johnson lights up when she reads messages from a man who calls himself Richard Woody — a man she met on an online dating site.
“My darling, I want to let you know my love for you is burning very brightly this day,” the 60-year-old grandmother from West Chester read aloud from her living room one recent morning. “My heart longs for you.”
Before Johnson found out he had allegedly scammed her through the site OurTime, and that Richard Woody wasn’t his real name, she said she had given him tens of thousands of dollars.
Even now, knowing what she knows, Johnson reads the emails affectionately.
Johnson first met the man who calls himself Woody on the dating website OurTime. The site focuses on people in their 50s and 60s who are looking to connect with other people in their age group.
Johnson said the man asked that they continue their conversations via email, instead of through the website.
“He started talking to me, and then he was like, ‘Well I’m getting off this site…can I have your email…we’ll talk on email,’” Johnson said.
The man, who claimed to live in Dayton, Ohio, began emailing, which then led to phone calls. He told Johnson he worked in the construction supply business, which regularly took him out of the country. The man claimed to be in the Philippines when he started to ask Johnson for cash to help him get back to her in the U.S.
The alleged scammer claimed he needed money for supplies and shipping costs.
“It was all the same storyline, the same plot line,” Johnson said.
Johnson admits she sent the man money several times, always in different ways: MoneyGram, wire transfers and using Ria Money Transfer.
Lt. David Tivin with the West Chester Police Department is investigating the case. He said on average, he sees at least three people fall victim to a sweetheart scam every month.
Tivin explained why tracking down an online predator is so tough.
“We don’t know who the person is, because she’s never met the person,” Tivin said. “She’s seen a picture. We don’t know if that picture is the person or not. We don’t know if the identity is the right name of the person. The IP address — I highly doubt comes back to the residence where this person lives. It’s probably been bounced off so many different servers that by the time it gets to you, you don’t know anything. There are no leads.”
When there’s no physical evidence, police are looking for a digital fingerprint, which can be much harder to find than a fingerprint left behind at a crime scene.
The situation has devastated Johnson’s daughter, Melissa Sliger, who said she warned her mother.
“My mom and I actually had a conversation, like he had asked her for money,” Sliger said. “And I was like, OK, let me do some digging. His business website was from Nigeria.”
Sliger got a call from Fifth Third Bank, where she is a joint-owner of her mother’s bank account. The bank told Sliger that her mom took out a loan for $46,000 and that she was trying to wire the money immediately.
“They said, ‘Hey, just so you know your mom got a loan out and now she’s trying to wire it out immediately,” Sliger said. “It sounds like a sweetheart scam. Do you know anything about it?’”
Sliger was able to put a stop to the $46,000 wire transfer. When she started combing through bank statements, she found very large purchases from Walmart and Kroger.
The person using the name of Richard Woody had taken Sliger’s mother for tens of thousands of dollars.
Tivin said OurTime is trying to help.
“We contacted the site and let them know the profile it was being done on, so they’re doing some research on their end,” he said.
Johnson’s family blocked the numbers of the man preying on her. He has since reached out to Johnson using different numbers.
“He still wants to keep talking to me and stuff and it’s like, Why?” Johnson said. “I don’t understand.”
OurTime actually has a “red flag” page dedicated to warning customers about sweetheart scammers. Johnson said she ignored the people waving those flags, as people often do with affairs of the heart.
Johnson just wanted to believe the person who she was talking to was real.
“Everyone just wants to feel special,” she said.
How to avoid the sweetheart scam
“Being cynical is not a bad thing,” Tivin said.
Tivin said most victims of the sweetheart scam are women over the age of 40. He advises anyone using a dating website not to let your guard down when sharing personal information.
Talking to you from a location other than where a scammer claims to live is the first red flag.
“If they’re from out of the country, if they don’t give you a working phone number but they give you a number to someone else,” Tivin said. “If they start asking you for money, if they start asking you for money and the way that the money is being wired…”
Scammers may build a rapport with a victim for days, weeks or even months before asking for money. The first request may be for a couple of dollars — a build up to a larger request down the road.
“Then there’s a big emergency, and then there’s another problem and by that time you’ve already shared enough information with them,” Tivin said.
Also be on the lookout for international IP addresses and phone numbers as well.
Perhaps the toughest part of the scam is that people give up their information voluntarily, Tivin said.
“The people that are doing the targeting — they may do this to a hundred people a day and it only takes one for them to be successful,” he said.
There’s little that can be done to stop the criminals, police say, but law enforcement, along with dating sites, can make the scammer’s world more inconvenient.