By Libby Smith
THORNTON, Colo (CBS4) – As more and more people go online looking for love, scammers are trolling to take advantage. Two women fell victim to a romance scam that left them with broken hearts and drained bank accounts. They shared their story with the hope of keeping other women from becoming victims.
They’ve become a support group of two, as they met for the first time in Thornton.
“It’s very healing. It’s very emotional,” said Rita of meeting Sharon.
“I never thought it would happen to me,” said Sharon.
Rita met Michael Richardson on match.com. He was a pipeline engineer working in the Philippines. He sent her a slew of pictures, along with pictures of his passport, and certificates from the job he was working on.
“Smart, intelligent, polite, knowledgeable,” Rita said of Michael Richardson.
Sharon met Michael Barnett on match.com. He was an industrial rail engineer with a project in the Philippines. She received the same slew of pictures as Rita, along with pictures of his passport and certificates from the job he was working on.
“The connection was there … the communication,” Sharon said of Michael Barnett.
Both women said that they were swept off their feet. He knew exactly what to say and when to say it.
“He talked about my life. He talked about his life. He blended them together,” Rita told CBS4.
There were gifts, and daily text messages, and emails.
“It was complete; thorough emails. All things answered, all things were taken care of,” Rita recalled.
Each woman got dozens of phone calls.
“Talked to him at least two to three times a day,” Sharon told CBS4.
They confided, and trusted, and opened their hearts.
Then they got the call that changed everything. They both tell a similar story. Michael was supposed to be coming back to the United States to visit them. They got a call that was supposed to be from the American Embassy. He’d been detained at the airport for tax evasion or a problem with his paperwork. He needed money to get out of trouble. That’s when they started sending money.
“My feeling was to help and to get him out of a jam, and get him out of the Philippines,” Rita said.
They sent sums totaling thousands, and even tens of thousands of dollars. Money they didn’t have.
“I actually took out a loan from a lending club, which he recommended,” Sharon said.
Eventually, Michael asked Rita to accept and resend packages for him.
“The mail came and there were articles in there of clothing, phones, shoes, belts, sunglasses,” Rita explained.
She would repackage the merchandise and send it to another address, which he provided. The U.S. Postal Inspection Service calls it a reshipping scam. The merchandise is bought with stolen credit card numbers, and sent to various addresses as a way of masking it’s trail to the scammer.
LINK: U.S. Postal Inspection Service Information on Reshipping Scam
“I felt comfortable with him. I felt comfortable sending him money. I felt comfortable helping him with the packages,” Rita said.
It was the U.S. Postal Inspection Service that first recognized Rita was a victim of a scam, and told her to stop sending money and reshipping packages.
“But I still didn’t believe it because I was already so involved,” Rita said.
Meanwhile, Michael Barnett was asking Sharon to send her money to Rita’s bank account, and Rita was sending it to the Philippines via MoneyGram. Again, a way of “laundering” the payments. When Rita got a large payment from Sharon, she’d had enough and took it as payment for the money she’d sent out.
“This is where it stops. I closed my account,” Rita said.
That’s when the scammer turned Sharon against Rita.
“He says, ‘Babe, we just got scammed,’” Sharon recounted.
He encouraged Sharon to file a police report about the theft, which she did. Thornton police investigated, and contacted Rita about stealing money from Sharon. She said that she hadn’t stolen money — that it was money owed to her from her lover. Police said that it was the money of another lady who was being scammed by the same person Rita was being scammed by.
That’s when both women realized they’d been had.
“I’m working seven days a week to maintain,” Rita said
“My credit cards are all maxed out. I’ll probably pull some out of my 401K,” Sharon said.
Both women are left with thousands of dollars in debt, and a sadness that runs deep.
LINK: U.S. Postal Inspection Services Info about the Sweetheart Scam
“Now I have to struggle to fight my way back to where I was,” Rita said.
“I want people to understand what these guys are doing, and how good they are,” Sharon said.
Both women have been trying to track down the scammer on their own, but so far they haven’t found him.
In a statement to CBS4 match.com said:
“One in three new relationships begin online, with more of these relationships starting on Match than any other site. Match has transformed millions of people’s lives for the better. While a minuscule number of our millions of subscribers have been scammed by the sophisticated criminals who prey on individuals in every corner of the web, we take this issue very seriously and we diligently address it on the site, tracking, monitoring and preventing fraud at every step of the way.
While a single act is reprehensible, financial fraud can be prevented. We constantly educate our members throughout their Match.com experience to never give out any financial information to anyone over the internet. Safety tips appear on our website, on communications between subscribers, and we’ve created a pledge to never send financial information that every member must accept before they read their first email. As long as our members don’t do that, these kinds of things can be prevented.
Our safety tips can be found in one place here.”
CBS airs a weekly program called “The Inspectors” on Saturday mornings. It’s a dramatization of U.S. Postal Inspection Service cases geared toward pre-teenage children, and warns of the various types of scams and fraud that occurs through the mail.
LINK: U.S. Postal Inspection Service Info on Other Fraud schemes Using the U.S. Mail
Libby Smith is a Special Projects Producer at CBS4. If you have a story you’d like to tell CBS4 about, call 303-863-TIPS (8477) or visit the News Tips section.