CLEARWATER, Fla. — A Clearwater woman thought she met Mr. Right, but her search for love left her nearly $40,000 in debt.
This is not a love story but rather a cautionary tale because romance scams are growing in popularity.
Sharon Petersen thought she found love on OKCupid. He told her his name was Victor and he ran a bank in Madrid. But, three months later, she became his piggy bank.
“Hello, my love. I tried to call you but it seems like you are busy," Victor said in one of the numerous voicemail's he left Petersen.
Sweet phone conversations and poetry followed every step of their relationship.
“I really feel comfortable with him, I think he’s very attractive. I love his voice," Petersen said of how she felt towards him at first.
Victor spent months wooing her. He said he was going to move to Clearwater and marry her, even giving her a copy of his passport as proof of his identity.
“Then you just give your trust more than your brain knows is good," said Petersen.
But then Victor needed her help to access a sudden inheritance. He said her money would buy certificates to transfer the inheritance.
Then she needed to pay more money for taxes on the inheritance. After several cash advances, Petersen found herself in financial ruin.
“They are living off my financial suffering," she said.
Everything about Victor, the passport, the name and the pictures, were all fake. Petersen did a reverse image search and found his picture was actually that of a European actor. There was even a second scammer, said Petersen, posing as an attorney.
“I mean they are very good actors, extremely good liars," said Petersen.
"It's horrible, this is a heartbreaking story," said Rob Shaw with the Clearwater Police Department. "All of her hopes and dreams and bank accounts were dashed in a heartbeat."
Shaw said it's very difficult to catch these guys. The FBI says victims can lose big.
Romance scams follow business email scams when it comes to victim loses. According to the latest FBI Internet Crime Report, these types of scams totaled a $362 million loss to Americans.
“I could have definitely just stopped, but it was always just enough trust in him and what he was saying to keep going," said Petersen.
Petersen will not be able to recover even a penny of the $40,000 she lost through cash advances. She now hopes others can learn from her mistakes and not underestimate the charm of scammers.
Here's how you can keep yourself from becoming a victim:
1. Never ever send money.
2. Carefully examine their profiles
3. Use reverse image search on their pictures
4. Cut them loose if they don't want to meet you face-to-face.