“So, I looked at the friend request and he was on there and he looked, his smile and his eyes got me. I mean that's what got me hooked,” Patricia Coomer said.
Looking for love online is becoming the "new normal" with nearly 40 million Americans using dating apps and websites according to e-harmony.com.
With more people finding matches online more criminals are using it to target unsuspecting users.
Patricia Coomer wasn't looking for love when it found her 6 months ago.
“I was just browsing through Facebook and a couple of notices came up said I had a friend request that would like to meet me or chat with me,” Coomer said.
A friend request from a handsome stranger. A ship captain overseas looking for someone to talk to on those long lonely days on board. Everything that he was saying clicked beautifully.
Coomer is a widow who lost her husband five years ago.
“I'm in that lonely state. I mean, 41 years of marriage is a long time and then lose your best friend you know? That knew everything about you and I knew everything about him,” Coomer said.
The online relationship blossomed and after a while, Patricia's new love needed a little help.
“It kept going for about six or eight weeks and that's when he asked me for $50. You know, I can help you. You're on the seas and stuff,” Coomer said.
It was a small request and he assured Patricia he would pay her back.
In fact, he told her he was trying to come home to meet her and something even more exciting.
“I'm like okay? What is this? And he says,” I'm asking you to marry me”. And I was thrilled to death,” Coomer said.
Soon the excitement wore off and those small requests got bigger.
“It kind of just went from there and he kept asking for more and more and it come $100, $200 then the last month before things started getting really weird he was wanting money for this attorney, Jackson, so that he could get the paperwork started so he could come home and that we could be married,” Coomer said.
“And then he said, well sell your house, and I'll take care of you and send the money to me and you know I'll be there within 72 hours after you do it. I said. Sell my house? Why would i want to do that?” Coomer said.
It was after that request that Patricia saw a news story on romance scams and she realized what was happening.
“And I kind of like thought oh how stupid can I be?” Coomer said.
US Attorney Trent Shores is with the Northern District of Oklahoma is one of the agencies taking a hard look at this type of fraud.
His office along with the FBI arrested seven people back on November, five of them right here in Oklahoma.
The group is an alleged Nigerian money laundering conspiracy. They allegedly target Americans looking for love and ask for money. Court documents show they would then buy car parts and ship them back to Nigeria to clean the money.
Shores say the only way to crack down is for victims to report the crime.
“The key to anything is you have to report the crime, if you don't do that then we can't stop these fraudsters from doing it to someone else," Shores said.
The Better Business Bureau also tracks these types of schemes.
“It's across the board and it can happen to anyone of any age. The younger generation. The older generation. It does not matter who you are, what website you're on, scammers are going to find you, they're going to track you down and so you have to be really careful no matter what platform you're on," said Amie Mitchell, president of the Tulsa area BBB.
So how can you recognize romance fraud?
“Really look over that profile, look at the picture, reverse image it through google to make sure it's not assigned to another person or it's just a picture that's been downloaded offline, you can research their phone number, their email address, to make sure it's not associated with another scam. So, do your research on the profile first," Mitchell said.
The BBB says these are the red flags to watch for:
- Someone who wants the relationship to move too fast but can't meet you in person
- Someone who might be a little too good looking
- Someone with a sob story and down on their luck
- Anyone who asks for money
“They need to take a step back, take a deep breath, and use their common sense. Talk to a friend or a family member who can help put perspective into the situation. One of the ways they get away with it is that they embarrass their victims and when their victims are ashamed to come forward because it's that natural feeling of I got tricked and I don't want to admit that I got tricked and then that allows them, enables them to do this to someone else," Shores said.
In the end, Patricia ended up giving the handsome captain around $850. A small sum compared to other victims.
In one of the cases here in Oklahoma, a victim from Pryor gave their online 'love' more than half a million dollars.
“I think it's horrible because you're pulling on that person's heart," Coomer said.
While Patricia’s fairytale didn’t quite work out as she planned.
“Turned out to be more of a nightmare," Coomer said.
She says she hasn't given up on love or online dating.
“I'm going to be more cautious," Coomer said.
If you or someone you know has been a victim of romance fraud please report it to the FBI and the BBB.
To report a romance fraud scheme to the FBI click HERE.
To report it to the BBB click HERE.
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