ALOHA, Ore. - With Valentine's Day just around the corner, plenty of people are thinking about love. But how do you know if your online valentine is the real thing or someone more sinister?
Football star Manti Te'o isn't the only one who has been hooked in these so-called "catfish" schemes. Consider the story of Nancy, an Aloha woman who has been baited by scammers twice, costing her nearly $30,000. (We're not publishing Nancy's last name to protect her privacy.)
At age 62, Nancy's personal life was not playing out the way she had hoped. After two divorces, she was alone and praying for answers. She seemed to find them in a man she met online and later decided to marry.
"It felt real because he was coming to see me," she said. "It felt like he loved me and he was coming to see me. Of course, he never showed up."
Nancy joined eHarmony last year and was immediately wooed by men on the dating site.
"I was taken, totally," she said.
A man from California named Daniel stood out from the rest.
"I had a picture of him and he looked like a model," Nancy remembered.
A widower, Daniel was ten years younger than Nancy. He traded gems as a hobby.
He also wrote Nancy passionate love letters describing storybook scenes of them getting caught in the rain, going on twilight horseback rides and then getting married.
Taken by his charm, Nancy said yes, she would marry Daniel.
They planned to meet at Portland International Airport, but first he had to take a trip to London. Daniel said he was planning to buy $10,000 worth of precious gems and sell them for a profit.
That's when the story took a turn away from the storybook narrative. Daniel wrote from London and said he had been robbed while at the airport.
"Everything was stolen. His cash, his cell phone, everything," Nancy said. "He needed money. So I took money out of my 401k, as much as I could, and sent it to him."
She sent Daniel $10,000 to buy more gemstones and bring them back to sell. He said if she helped buy the stones, he could help buy her dream house.
But Daniel's troubles at the airport continued. He managed to buy the gemstones, but customs stopped him for not having the proper paperwork. He said he needed more money.
Nancy took out cash advances on her credit cards - about $4,000 worth - and sent it to Daniel in London.
"I got involved. I felt I would do anything for this person," Nancy said.
The last she heard from Daniel he was asking for more money, this time for a London lawyer. That's when the story finally unraveled.
The man she knew as Daniel was really a scam artist who had used someone else's name and picture. He spun a web of words to make her think she was Juliet and he was her Romeo.
"I really feel dumb," Nancy said. "I have tears in my eyes because now I feel stupid."
Nancy's heart was broken, but she didn't give up on online dating. A few months after Daniel, she was back online and met another man.
But unlike Daniel, this man seemed more like a real human being.
"He was older," she explained. "I thought he wouldn't do this to me."
His name was Donald and he said he was 70 years old. They began to build a relationship online.
"Some of it got kind of sexual, how much he wanted to love me," Nancy said.
The online lovers were going to meet in person, again at PDX. But like Daniel, Donald said he had to go overseas first. He was needed in Egypt to help finish a contracting job.
He said he needed money for equipment, which she sent. Then he promised he was heading to Portland.
"I went to the airport. Nobody showed up," Nancy said. "He had trouble. The travel agent gave him the wrong boarding pass and he ended up in Dubai."
Donald then sent an email saying he was stuck at customs and needed money.
But having been burned before, she thought there was no way she was caught in another scam. She borrowed and sent $14,000 to Donald.
"I felt like he was coming soon and he would pay me back and it would be all right," Nancy said. "Then loans started being due and I was very much in trouble."
Nancy started digging online and found the real Donald on Facebook. The scammer had stolen his identity. For Nancy, her desperate need for love had twice robbed her of her judgment and her money.
"After having a marriage that failed, not feeling loveable at all, I guess that's why I fell victim," she said. "I felt, 'oh, somebody does love me.'"
Nancy's story shows you some of the tactics that scammers use. They often pretend to be in the military, stationed overseas. They also commonly pretend to be widowers or widows with international connections.
They often steal a real person's identity, so if you check up on them online, they look real.
The scammers pretend to see deeply into your soul and fall in love quickly. They may say that fate or God has brought you together. They are eager to drop everything and move to where you are. They make plans to meet, but those plans always disintegrate and the money troubles begin.
Here are some points to check if you decide to start an online relationship:
- Ask detailed questions about where they claim to live. Do they take a long time to respond because they are looking up the answers online?
- Do they try to get you to move to instant messaging right away?
- Do they "fall in love" within a day or two?
- Check their picture and love letters to see if they were actually lifted from somewhere else. You can try checking their pictures at tineye.com, and look for their letters and poems at lovingyou.com. Or, simply type parts of their letters into a search engine and see what comes up.
- Call them on the phone. Is there a lot of background noise on the call and does the person have a strong accent? Do they avoid phone calls?
- Watch their words. Do they use old-fashioned language and/or have trouble with English, though they claim to be from the United States?
- Do they ask you for money?