Fairly new to the internet, Ann Kopp had never even joined a social network like Facebook or Twitter.
Following her divorce, that changed and the Livingston woman was on a mission.
“I just wanted to get on a dating site and see what was out there,” Kopp explained.
Settling on Match.com, Kopp said it didn’t take long for her to make a romantic connection.
“He was very handsome. He said he was from Greece. He looked like he was from Greece,” Kopp said. “I’m romantic. I’m kind. I’m giving. I love to cuddle.”
The two exchanged constant messages and spoke on the phone.
A few weeks into the budding online relationship, Kopp said her new man needed some quick cash.
“He was supposed to be in Nigeria buying artwork because he owned an art gallery,” Kopp said. “He needed the tax money because they were saying that he had to pay the taxes for it, and he didn’t have it on him.”
According to Kopp, she wired money that totaled nearly $2,000.
“I did it twice, and then after the second time, I don’t know, something went off in my head, and I said this is not right. This is just not right,” Kopp said.
With help from a friend, Kopp said she learned the man that she had fallen for was actually a suspected scam artist from overseas.
“I was completely naive, so he got me,” she said.
Kopp is part of a growing number of people in Middle Tennessee and across the country who have fallen victim to a romance scam.
“It’s almost like a dream come true but it turns out to be a nightmare,” said Scott Augenbaum, a special agent with the FBI in Nashville. “There’s been a lot of women between the ages of 50 to 60 years old, divorced, and really involved with their church.”
As for how it works, he added, “They are creating a profile with the same exact interests as the individual, and they’re taking out pictures, they are cutting these pictures out on the internet, and they are matching the needs of the individuals.”
Although women have historically been the primary targets of these scams, Augenbaum said men fall victim as well.
In 2016, the Internet Crime Complaint Center received an estimated 15,000 complaints of romance scams that totaled in excess of $230 million.
The number of complaints in 2016 was even up about 2,500 from 2015, and those are just the victims who chose to come forward.
“The people are humiliated, and they’re embarrassed, because besides losing money, they actually believed that they were in love, and when they find out the person is a West African cybercriminal, it’s very, very embarrassing,” said Augenbaum.
In many cases, the victims have even become “mules,” used by the scammers to unwillingly steal millions from companies nationwide.
So how can you protect yourself? The FBI compiled a list of tips that include:
Research the person’s photo and profile using online searches to see if the material has been used elsewhere.
Go slow and ask lots of questions.
Beware if the individual seems too perfect or quickly asks you to leave a dating service or Facebook to go “offline.”
Beware if the individual attempts to isolate you from friends and family or requests inappropriate photos or financial information that could later be used to extort you.
Beware if the individual promises to meet in person but then always comes up with an excuse why he or she can’t. If you haven’t met the person after a few months, for whatever reason, you have good reason to be suspicious.
Never send money to anyone you don’t know personally. “If you don’t know them, don’t send money,” Beining said. “You will see what their true intentions are after that.”
If you suspect an online relationship is a scam, stop all contact immediately. And if you are the victim of a romance scam, file a complaint with the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center.
“Is Mr. Right out there on Match.com? He might be. But make sure we’re doing our homework and we’re really making sure that he is who he says he is,” Augenbaum said.
As for Kopp, even after falling victim to this romance scam, her search for love is far from over.
“You’ve got millions of frogs out there, and then there’s this little prince in the middle, but you have to keep going through all the frogs until you get the prince,” Kopp said.
News 2 reached out to Match.com for comment. Below is their full statement:
At Match, the safety and well-being of our community is a top priority, and we take the issue of fraud very seriously. We understand that sophisticated criminals prey on individuals in every corner of the web, and we diligently address it on the site and app, tracking, monitoring and working to prevent fraud every step of the way using technology that identifies possible fraudulent behavior such as unusual communication patterns and suspicious photos and profiles. Unfortunately, criminals oftentimes encourage users to communicate off of Match’s platform as quickly as possible, giving us limited visibility into their behavior.
However, while reprehensible, financial fraud can still be prevented. We work to constantly educate our members throughout their Match experience, with safety tips, when members are communicating with each other, and with a mandatory pledge to never give out any financial information to anyone over the internet. As long as our members follow our safety tips, these kinds of things cannot happen.