WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – For Nicole Hayden of Palm Beach County, Florida, her first encounter with the face of the man she would eventually know as Alessandro Cinquini came in the form of a direct message to her Instagram account.
The man in this message called himself Marcus, a marine engineer whose profile post included a short summary of his personality: “I’m not for everyone but I’m OK with that.”
Hayden, a single mother of two, told News 6 the messages he sent were casual before flying into romantic overdrive just days later.
“All of a sudden, it was starting to become really heavy,” she recalled. “‘I love you, I want to marry you.’ I immediately knew something was wrong.”
Marcus wanted to come home to Florida and meet her family for Thanksgiving and that’s when she blocked him.
“Don’t trust anybody because anybody can hide behind a screen,” Hayden told News 6. “As women, we tend to ignore red flags.”
Unfortunately, before she had ended the “relationship,” she had sent him a photo of herself at the beach. That swimsuit picture was then altered into a version that made it appear as if she was posing nude.
Hayden told News 6 “Marcus” used that photo to blackmail her, demanding $6,500 or he would send the photograph to her family.
“They found me about a month later on my WhatsApp account and started threatening me,” she recalled. “They were going to find me and my kids.”
She never paid them and to this day, her photograph has never emerged on social media sites.
A short time later, the photograph of the man used by the imposter showed up on her Instagram account as a possible dating match.
Ironically, it was the same face but a different name: Alex the Officer, aka Alessandro Cinquini, a veteran officer with Carnival Cruise Line.
In an unlikely twist of fate, Hayden started messaging, FaceTiming and then dating the 27-year-old Italian, now living In Miami.
They have been dating since January and have decided to go public to warn women that his photograph is being used by hundreds of imposters every day.
“The main goal (for the imposters) is to make money,” Cinquini said. “In this case, my picture is used to trick you, to create fake stories. You have to be careful.”
Cinquini has received messages from women everywhere from the U.S. to Peru, many telling him his photograph is linked to names including Thomas Riley, Alex, and of course, Marcus.
In one case, Dawn Maher of the U.S. sent a text to Cinquini to tell him her mother lost almost $40,000 to a man who called himself Thomas Riley, but used Cinquini’s photograph in his profile.
The FBI investigated, but the money was never recovered.
“Honestly, the amount of accounts reported to me I cannot quantify,” Cinquni said. ”Nicole is the first person I was able to meet that was targeted by a Catfish imposter.”
Hayden said it’s important to trust your gut, pay attention to red flags and not send anyone money.
For more information on romance scams and how to protect yourself, click here.