June 22, 2011 — Match.com, one of the country’s most popular dating websites, takes credit for “more relationships and more marriages than any other site.” But not every connection made on Match.com has a fairytale ending — and Joan Romano found that out the hard way.
Romano, 53, from Lynbrook, N.Y., a busy and divorced single woman, said that she didn’t have time to go out and meet people. On the advice of friends, she joined Match.com. She soon found herself chatting online with a man named “Austin Miller.” Miller identified himself as a decorated soldier based in Kabul, Afghanistan. When Miller sent her a picture of himself in uniform, Romano was impressed.
She thought, “Wow, I hit the jackpot. (He was) a nice-looking guy,” Romano said. “I’m like, this is too good to be true.”
Watch Romano and others who have faced online dating scams tell their stories on “We Find Them,” a “20/20” special, Friday at 10 p.m. ET.
As Romano and Miller stayed in touch, Romano found herself falling “deeper and deeper” into the online relationship. When Miller asked for a new laptop, she was eager to help a soldier in need.
“I am very patriotic and I worked in the World Trade Center on 9/11,” she said. “So to me, if it’s for a soldier to help, I’ll do whatever I can.”
The laptop cost her $1,000. Miller instructed Romano to send it through FedEx to Ghana. Romano said she was a little suspicious of the mailing address — Ghana is a continent away from Afghanistan — but Miller told her that a man in Ghana would ultimately deliver the laptop to him.
Romano’s generosity to the “soldier” didn’t end there: She sent him a total of $25,000 within a six-month time span before realizing that she had fallen victim to a scammer.
“Everyone can form their own opinion, but you’ll never know until it happens to you. And unfortunately, it happened to me,” she said.
To bring some closure to Romano’s story, “20/20” posted the picture that “Austin Miller” sent Romano online and we asked viewers to help us find him. We received more than a hundred responses in a matter of four hours, and one of the messages led us to our answer. Angie Gordon, a viewer form Northern Virginia, picked up on a subtle clue.
“I was able to tell which branch he was affiliated with in the Army and it kind of narrows the field,” she said.
With Gordon’s information, “20/20” was able to track down the man in the picture. His real name was Jeffrey Miller and we found him at the Wainwright Army Base in Fairbanks, Alaska. He was a lieutenant in the U.S. Army whose identity was stolen, right off MySpace, and was just about to be deployed for a second tour in Afghanistan.
Miller was shocked to learn that someone had apparently been using his picture to run a scam.
“It’s a shame, it’s disgusting, that even somebody could even as low as to betray a U.S. soldier and use that as an excuse to take advantage of these women or anybody for that matter,” he said.
To help Romano find her scammer somewhere in Ghana, “20/20” asked her to send one final email to the so-called “Austin Miller.” With a few arrangements from a “20/20” undercover producer in Ghana, we tracked down her scammer. He admitted to our undercover producer that he was a conman and even tried to convince him to join him in his scam.
“We can even get up to $15,000 to $20,000 more from her,” he told our producer.
The FBI said it gets thousands of complaints a year from people like Romano, who have been scammed by people they meet on online dating websites.
Greg Blatt, the CEO of the parent company that owns Match.com, said the site has spent millions of dollars to protect its members. Less than one half of one percent of its subscribers have ever reported a profile that is questionable, he said, but when they do, the profiles are blocked within two hours, removed from the site and investigated. Match.com’s safety tips.
“We do everything we can to make it as safe as possible,” Blatt said. “At the end of the day, we also know that, that a lot of it rests in the hands of the members themselves to avoid this sort of thing, and we do everything we can to help them.”
How can you keep yourself protected from getting scammed on online dating sites? Online dating tips from cybersecurity expert Hemanshu Nigam.
For more information on online dating scams, check out romancescams.org.