Valentine's Day is coming up and many people are looking for love, companionship, even a spouse. That's why millions of people turn to online dating sites.
The problem is, professionally trained scammers use those sites to break hearts and empty bank accounts using the, "Sweetheart Scam."
The scam is especially cruel because the scammers spend months emailing and talking to their victims, telling them they love them and want to marry them. But, it's all a lie and it always boils down to money.
80 percent of the victims are women, most are over 50. Nearly all of them live in the Bible belt.
A woman we call, "Mary," is a victim of the scam, and she said, "Oh, my stomach just bottomed out. I thought, how in the world? I'm brighter than this and he was still able to suck me in."
Mary is a smart, educated mother and grandmother who divorced after more than 30 years of marriage. She joined a dating website last June and went on more than a dozen dates, before connecting with John online.
"He's a single father, didn't have parents, which gave me that, oh, poor guy, he has no body but his little girl," said Mary.
They emailed and talked every day and she even talked to his daughter, Jessica, on the phone.
They shared information and became very close. He told her he was from Boston but had moved to Africa for work and soon, he would come to Oklahoma.
"He was going to marry me and buy a house here in Tulsa," Mary said.
He even showed her flight confirmations for a trip to Tulsa, but he canceled at the last minute. Eventually, he needed a favor.
"He said, ‘Jessica wants a laptop,' and I said, ‘I don't even spend that on my own daughters.' He said, ‘Well, it's her 13th birthday,' and I said, "That is a special birthday,' so I bought her a laptop," said Mary.
She sent it, and weeks passed. They kept talking, and then, some bad news. He'd fallen and hit his head in the bedroom and his daughter found him. He even sent a picture of him in a hospital bed, and this time, he needed money for hospital bills. Even a few hundred dollars would help.
"The emotional part I felt, Lori, was when he was hospitalized and his little girl was stranded and alone in Africa," said Mary. Even if there's a one percent chance she's real, what kind of person am I not to care?"
Later, Mary's bank account was drained of $75,000 and U.S. Postal Inspectors called, telling her the truth about John.
"He had 50 other women sending him gifts and money," Mary said.
Tulsa's postal inspectors see it all the time. Scammers steal phone numbers from the U.S. They use proxy servers to appear they're somewhere they're not. They cut and paste photos of others.
They work full time at a bank of computers scamming 20 to 50 victims at a time, they even use voice synthesizers to change their voice or sound like a child.
They use the information from your profile to seem like your perfect match. Claim to be Christian and then have a ton of excuses for why they can't come see you.
Once you care, they claim they've been robbed or are in the hospital. Claim they need money for a child or a charity, or they want you to send them electronics, or need you to cash a check; and they make it all sound very legitimate.
"They go to school to learn this trade," said Postal Inspector Al Chapa.
Investigators said most of these scammers are in Africa, where they're hard to track down and harder to arrest.
This is the one crime where the victim doesn't want the help of law enforcement, in fact, they get angry and they absolutely refuse it happened to them.
"My case is different. I know there are scammers out there but not my case. I'm truly in love and they love me and they're going to come marry me," is what many victims say according to Chapa.
It's hard to combat loneliness and desperation, and then victims are embarrassed and ashamed and refuse to tell anyone.
After Mary confronted John and quit talking to him, he texted and said he'd tried to commit suicide, willing to say anything to keep her on the hook.
"He used that heavily to weigh on my emotions," Mary said.
I am contacted by people all the time wanting me to convince their mom or dad that the person they're in love with online is actually a scammer. But, even when their family tells them, police or church members, they don't want to hear it or believe it.
People can avoid this by dating only people you can actually meet and see and spend time with in person, safely.
Even though you won't get your money back, and they won't get arrested, you should still report it so the crimes can be tracked.