BALTIMORE — These are feelings many people can relate to: wanting to meet someone, not knowing the best way to go about it, but tired of being lonely.
A Maryland woman finally decided she would give online dating a try. At the start of summer, she met an older man on Tinder who claimed to live Baltimore.
They started chatting.
She learned he was in Paris working as an interior decorator. Over the course of several weeks they spent hours texting, chatting on the phone, even video chatting. He was the same man she saw in the photos on the dating app. Tomas Haysbert sent flowers to her office and even a ring from an online jeweler.
"He's a perfect guy, he says the right things, it made me feel good," she said.
This woman doesn't want to be identified because she doesn't want friends and family members to discover that this perfect man on the dating app would deceive her into sending more than $75,000.
"This is stupid, I'm not dumb, but you know it can happen to anyone believe me," she said.
Haysbert told the woman that he was having problems at work. He'd run out of funds to finish a project and needed her to accept a package containing $400,000, documents and jewelry that he kept with a security company in China for emergencies.
A company called Speed Logistics emailed the woman requesting $4,800 to ship the package. Later she received another email from Mary Sudeikis with Speed Logistics stating they would need $16,300 for a diplomatic pouch to clear customs. The package was shipped from Hong Kong to the United Kingdom.
Then another email: "We had to do full disclosure due to the new BREXIT laws in the United Kingdom. ... a tax of $52,670.00 has been imposed on your shipment."
She paid an additional $500 in late fees and was contacted once more when the package was held up in Mexico.
"They were saying because they had to pay for the (border) wall, whatever, then we needed to pay $152,000 and I said, 'that's it. I don't have anymore money,' " the woman said.
Looking back, she doesn't think there ever was a package.
She lost close to $75,000. FBI Special Agent Keith Custer said that's around an average loss for romance scam victims.
"So people are losing that amount everyday," Custer said.
He added that these crimes are underreported, hard to prosecute, and happen all too frequently.
"We have information that they're almost sweatshops overseas, often in Nigeria, where someone kind of has a game plan or script and they have a number of people underneath them working off this script," Custer said.
And the likelihood of someone getting money back is very slim.
"Twenty-four hours after it's left the account, if we don't have it, it's usually not coming back," said Custer.
You may think you'd never fall for it, even judge people who do, but the crime is more elaborate and the harm is more than monetary.
"You know, to trust somebody, it's going to be very hard. I think it's better to be alone than to find somebody on the internet," the woman said.
According to Custer, there's a $100,000 threshold for the FBI to open a dedicated investigation. Regardless, victims should still file a report with the FBI Internet Crime Complaint Center. If investigators see a pattern, they may start building a case.
What to look for:
And odds are if you've fallen victim to this scam, you become the target of others. The FBI says it's important to stay vigilant. Below are their tips for online dating:
- 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.