Online love can lead to broken hearts and bank accounts

Police say international thieves are using stolen photos to dupe widows

By Mike Holfeld - Investigative Reporter

A News 6 investigation has uncovered a slick international dating scheme that targets widows who have accounts on dating sites like Match.com and Plenty of Fish. 

Lynne, a 65-year-old widow in Citrus County, was contacted by two men who quickly asked her to leave the Match.com site because they knew she “was the one.” 

“I left the site because I thought this person might be real,” Lynne said.

Lynne had texts from the man she knew as Mike Poole aka Sebastian Poole, a German contractor with a mall construction project in Spain.

One text was packed with romantic lines in broken English: “I love you so much with all me, my darling heart.”

While News 6 was interviewing her, a man with a French accent called her cellphone. It was the man claiming to be Mike Poole and he needed $8,000 and promised he would pay her back.

She never sent a dime and told him she would see if she had extra funds available.

Ironically, the profile of a German contractor with a mall construction project in California was the same story that fooled Diane Standish.

The Orlando widow eventually lost an estimated $270,000 between the fall of 2017 and early 2018 to a man she thought she was going to marry.

“He told me he was in love with me,” Standish said. “ He said all the right things.”

Standish made cash withdrawals and deposited them in various bank accounts with names of people she had never heard of.

“It was mostly lawyer fees and bail money. He promised he would pay me back,” she said.

News 6 tracked the photos to a Sarejevo newspaper report that included photographs of the unveiling of a statute of Mother Teresa.

Among the guests, was Flamur Gashi, former Albanian ambassador to Bosnia, the same face scammers were using to dupe Standish.

It turns out the face Standish knew as Jerry Michael aka Darnell Michael was actually a former diplomat.

Lynne saw that story on ClickOrlando.com and called News 6 to share her experience of online love and lies.

“In the beginning he almost had me going down the aisle,” she said. “I want to catch them."

Catching them won’t be easy, according to Orlando police Detective Paul Griffith. 

“These con men are working this every day. It’s global, so you don’t know how many people they’re talking to a day,” Griffith said.

Griffith said the dating schemes are lucrative, but while victims like Standish lose thousands to people they think are in love with them, only 15 percent actually admit being scammed.

“They’re embarrassed. They leave with an empty heart and an empty bank account and we have to tell them (victims) there’s a slim chance we’re going to recover the money,” he said.

Griffith said impostor schemes from IRS threats to family emergencies are even more common than the dating scams.

Still, online romances are quickly becoming a favorite of con men operating anywhere from Orlando to South Africa and Eastern Europe.

Investigators said the top warning sign is when your online friend falls in love with you overnight.

“Don’t rush into the relationship," Griffith said. “They’ll win your confidence and then your love, and then they’re going to try and win your money.”

Griffith’s online dating tips: 
1.    Lead with your head, not your heart.
2.    Do your own investigation on the internet, including Google image search.
3.    Stay in contact with a trusted friend get their take on the relationship.
4.    If they’re asking for money, that’s a red flag.
5.    Pay attention to their conversation. Many times you can catch them in a lie.
6.    Those photographs could be someone else.

If you have been scammed contact the FBI or your local police department

Copyright 2018 by WKMG ClickOrlando - All rights reserved.