MANITOWOC – What a difference two years makes.
Karen Stebane appeared on the Dr. Phil show in 2021 to talk about how she’d met her soulmate on an online dating site but instead was scammed out of $10,000.
She cried. She felt duped.
And then she found true love — in person, the old-fashioned way.
Stebane was introduced by her daughter to her fiancé and can now chuckle (a little) at her painful learning experience.
Two years ago, Mindy Fickett wanted to believe her mom had found true romance and happiness at long last. Stebane divorced Fickett’s dad in 1999 and did what many folks do these days when looking for love — she joined the dating site Match.com.
She soon began texting and talking on the phone with “Thomas,” who said he lived in Portage.
“They were supposed to meet in early November, and she was very excited,” Fickett said. “But then he said he had to go check on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico.”
Fickett grew suspicious when her mom relayed the oil rig story and the reasons the man gave for delaying plans to meet several times. She watches “Catfish: The TV Show” on MTV, a reality program about the ups and downs of online dating, and worried her mom might be the victim of a scam.
The man kept changing phone numbers or not reaching out to her mother at all, saying satellite service was bad near the oil rig and communication was difficult.
It wasn’t until her mom told her she’d sent a $10,000 cashier’s check, now cashed, to an address in Richmond, Virginia, that Fickett knew her gut feeling was right.
The scammer had told her mom he needed the emergency funds to help cover repairs to the oil rig, and he’d repay her when he could.
“There was nothing I could do about it,” Fickett said. “My mother didn’t want me to do much. She thought it was for real.”
Stebane said she never doubted Thomas was a real person or that they would meet someday. But she was willing to go on the Dr. Phil show to share her story.
It was only when Dr. Phil revealed he had found Thomas through a private investigator that reality hit for Stebane. Dr. Phil shared the photo she had of Thomas on social media. They soon learned the scammer used a photo of a man from Georgia and the profile info of someone else. They traced the phone, and the voice she had spoken with, to a room full of scammers hiding in a room in Virginia.
“I cried and cried and cried,” Stebane said. “I was so sure he was real. I thought Dr. Phil might introduce him and surprise me by having him walk out on stage so we could meet.”
Fickett was determined to find the scammer. She said Thomas’s photos didn’t appear to be doctored and she couldn’t find any information online to prove the Match.com account was fake. She worked hard to stop the $800 worth of gift cards her mother also had sent to the scammer and retrieved about $400 back.
“He even used some of the gift cards for Match.com subscriptions,” Fickett said. “He said he wanted his friends to find the romance he had.”
The man asked her mom to take a lien against her vehicle to “loan” him $20,000 for more work on the oil rig. Stebane said she couldn’t do that and calls and texts became sporadic.
Fickett reached out to the show for her mother, but producers said Stebane needed to hear from the scammer again to be on the show.
“My mom messaged him that she had $10,000 she could give him, and he took the bait,” Fickett said. “All of the sudden, his phones were working again.”
Stebane said she won’t do online dating again.
“I thought he was real all along,” she said. “I still get emotional about it.”
The red flags were there, she acknowledged.
“If someone only wants to text or call and has every excuse in the world about why they can’t meet or do a video call, don’t believe them,” Stebane said. “And if they ask for money, for sure don’t respond.”
A private investigator in Virginia told Stebane she’s still trying to find a way to retrieve the $10,000 she sent to “Thomas.” Stebane doesn’t expect to the get funds back at this point and has moved on.
She said she knows she’s not alone, but it was a painful and expensive lesson.
The Federal Trade Commission says on its website it received more than 21,000 reports of romance scams in 2018. People reported losing a total of $143 million — with a median of about $2,600 — to romance scammers from dating sites or social media. That number is a sharp increase from 8,500 complaints with dollar losses of $33 million reported in 2015.
The good news is Stebane’s story has a happy ending.
Fickett and her friend introduced Stebane to her friend’s dad, Mark. Stebane will make a second appearance on Dr. Phil, to air on May 18, and introduce Mark as her fiancé in a video they put together.
The two-part “Where are they now” show airs locally at 3 p.m. May 18 and 19. There are 13 guests on the show. Stebane said she’s first, so folks should tune in promptly at 3 p.m.
She even got a chance to hug Dr. Phil.
“I’m happy now, and have a wonderful fiancé,” Stebane said. “I hope every person in the world can learn from what happened to me and to not do the same thing.”
Contact reporter Patti Zarling at email@example.com or call 920-606-2586. Follow her on Twitter @PGPattiZarling.
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