CHICAGO (CBS) — A suburban man is out $8,000 – and his story is tale of loneliness, love, pain, and a popular ruse.
The man is also not alone. The year 2020 turned out to be a record year for romance scams – costing victims more than $300 million.
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CBS 2’s Tim McNicholas dug into what is behind these catfish schemes.
Songs of sorrow fill a west suburban apartment occupied by a man named Al. When we met him, he was playing “I Feel So Bad” by Elvis Presley.
And Al said he is not in your typical heartbreak hotel.
“I had a couple nights where I was listening to sad love songs and you know, heartbroken stuff, but it doesn’t feel right either – because this person doesn’t even exist. This person wasn’t a real person. It’s just a fantasy made up by the scammer,” he said. “It’s hard to be heartbroken by somebody who doesn’t exist.”
Al won’t show his face. But he will show the eight months of messages with an online girlfriend he met on Match.com.
“She called me honey. She called me babe. She called me dear,” Al said.
She was a beautiful woman so affectionate she sent him flowers when she learned his address. And then she sent him nude photos and videos.
At one point, Al said they even had Skype sex.
“I was just so surprised that this was actually happening,” Al said. “I mean, I’m a lonely guy. I don’t have much of a social life.”
It was all a welcome change of pace for Al – a man in his 50s who clawed his way out of homelessness in 2016, and joined Match because he doesn’t want to spend his life alone.
In those chats, he even typed out disagreements and lovers’ quarrels in this blossoming union.
“One of the deals I had with this person is I was going to stop looking at porn,” Al said. “I told her I look at porn, and she said, ‘You know, don’t do that.’”
But he didn’t listen. And last month, browsing the web, he stumbled upon an image of a woman that looked familiar – too familiar.
“One night I typed in, ‘Canadian nude girls’ – hey, there’s my girlfriend,” Al said.
The pictures and videos his supposed lover sent were stolen from the website of a Canadian woman who makes pornography at home with her husband. The Skype sex was actually a video that real woman had posted online.
They even sent Al a forged passport with the porn actress’s photo.
But by the time Al realized it was fake, he had already sent over $8,000 in gift cards to help with a fictional financial emergency. Cue those sad songs he’s been putting on lately.
“We were supposed to get married, and all the money I sent, she was going to pay me back from the $200,000 inheritance that she had in Canada,” Al said.
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It’s the kind of Catfishing scam talk show titan Dr. Phil McGraw has chronicled for years – including several in the past year. McNicholas talked with Dr. Phil about it.
McNicholas: “How do you think this pandemic we’re in has impacted romance scams and catfish cases?”
Dr. Phil: “We do know that loneliness has really spiked terribly for these folks, so I think it’s increased vulnerability tremendously – and we’ve seen a spike in the catfish activity.”
FULL INTERVIEW: Dr. Phil On Romance Scams
The perpetrators are often thousands of miles away, searching chat rooms and dating sites for vulnerable people.
Al now believes his scammer is in Ghana, because they at one point tried to get him to send a money order to the country.
In 2019, ABC Australia discovered an internet café in Ghana where young men openly explained how they dupe people into sending thousands of dollars.
“And I’ll make sure to make him happy, happy like he’ll fall in love with me,” a scammer told the broadcast network.
And often, the scammers use a porn star’s likeness. In 2018, one Connecticut man was so confused that he sued an actual porn star – insisting she scammed him out of more than $1,700.
“They ignore red flags,” Dr. Phil said. “They forgo normal skepticism and embrace it because they want so badly for it to be true.”
Even Al didn’t want to believe the truth when he first found the source of the photos. He emailed the real adult filmmaker in Canada, asking her what was going on.
“Every single thing you were told is a line,” she replied.
When we reached out to her, she and her husband explained they hear similar stories every week.
“Knowing how our images have destroyed people’s lives is hard on us both,” her husband wrote.
And they say the truth hurts.
“I’m not going look for love on the internet,” Al said. “It’s a waste of time.”
For Al, it’s the lies that keep him feeling bad.
The actual couple that owns the images sent to Al says they have unsuccessfully tried to get social media platforms to remove dozens of imposter profiles using their images.
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Meanwhile, Match.com has offered the following detailed tips:
We work diligently to stop fraud in its tracks here and Match and prevent it from happening to our users.
– Education: We work hard to educate our members throughout their match experience. Financial fraud can be prevented. You can find our safety tips here: http://www.match.com/help/safetytips.aspx?lid=4. You’ll see “never send money” is the first thing mentioned in these tips (below).
Never Send Money or Share Financial Information
Never send money, especially over wire transfer, even if the person claims to be in an emergency. Wiring money is like sending cash — it’s nearly impossible to reverse the transaction or trace where the money went. Never share information that could be used to access your financial accounts. If another user asks you for money, report it to us immediately.
For tips on avoiding romance scams, check out some advice from the U.S Federal Trade Commission on the FTC website or in the video below.
– Pledge: We require every single user to accept a safety pledge before they begin communicating with other members on the site (this is intentionally not a simple opt-in). See attached screen grab
– Technology: These sophisticated criminals prey on individuals in every corner of the internet, and at Match, we have an in-house team of fraud specialists, utilizing advanced technology to catch fraudsters in their tracks including:
• Automatic scans of profiles upon creation for red-flag language and images;
• Ongoing scans for fraudulent accounts or messaging activity;
• Manual reviews of suspicious profiles, activity, and user-generated reports.
Also worth noting that unfortunately, in the majority of cases, criminals encourage users to communicate off of Match’s platform as quickly as possible, giving us limited visibility into their behavior. We encourage all Match members to stay on our platform and utilize our messaging platform so they can benefit from our technology that keeps you safe.