CHARLOTTE, NC — An estimated one billion dollars have been stolen over the past three years in North America from victims of so called “Sweetheart Scams,” and Charlotte residents are being targeted too. In fact, a local woman recently lost a significant chunk of her retirement savings because of an elaborate online dating cybercrime.
The victim, who we’ll call "Jan," asked us not to show her face or use her voice because she’s just too embarrassed right now.
However, Jan gave Whistleblower 9 access to her phone and financial records that confirm she recently lost more than $50,000 after falling in love with someone she met online.
Jan met “Tony Leslie Park” on the dating website “Plenty of Fish” and quickly agreed to give the man her cell phone number.
His first text read: “Hello Gorgeous, Its Tony...”
Tony followed up with a playful first picture and would send dozens of similar selfies in the days and weeks to come.
Tony said he lived in Charlotte but was away on business in Germany and South Africa. He quickly began to discuss marriage and texted Jan love songs with lyrics like; “I wanna die lying in your arms” and “I wanna grow old with you.”
Whistleblower 9’s documentation analysis found that Jan and Tony exchanged more than 10 thousand text messages over a 2 1/2-month period. Phone records show they called each other to talk more than 400 times at length during that time. Day after day, the suspect was completely engaged with his victim.
The texts and photos become more provocative over time and eventually Tony began to groom his victim for the scam.
Mike Holland is a Charlotte-based cybercrimes expert with Fortalice Solutions.
“I think that people are wanting to think the best of another person in a relationship,” Holland said.
Holland says Jan’s situation is far too common in Charlotte and around the world.
“The criminal will try to gain trust,” Holland said.
In Jan’s case, Tony sent texts about his “business” including photos of supplies he supposedly just purchased.
Tony built trust with Jan by giving her the password to his supposed checking account and then asked her to “help me make the transfer” to pay for multiple business transactions.
The fake checking account had more than $700,000 in it, leading Jan to believe her online boyfriend was already very wealthy.
Then a manufactured moment of crisis propelled Jan toward what she admits were a series of bad decisions.
Tony said his business bank account has been frozen because of the activity from her computer and IP address.
He suddenly needs her money to pay business invoices until his account is unfrozen.
“They’re trying to get you to do something that you would otherwise not do,” said Holland
Jan initiated more than a dozen financial transactions in the days that followed totaling $56,345.
Tony promised to pay her back when he returned to Charlotte and even emailed her fake flight information.
For whatever reason, Tony went to great lengths string Jan along to the end. He sent a last photo saying he was boarding his flight.
Jan waited at the airport for hours, but Tony never arrived.
She texted nervously at first: “My love where are you?”
Then typed in all-caps: “WHERE ARE YOU????”
Her next message is an expletive filled attack on the man she thought she knew and loved.
Finally, Jan types: “It must be exhausting being a full-time ConMan”
Tony never responded and disconnected his phone. Jan filed reports with police and the FBI, but there’s not an active investigation.
Mike Holland says recovering money and prosecuting these cyber criminals is difficult. His advice when it comes to online dating is verify who you’re really falling in love with.
“If they are not in the United States and you can’t go and physically meet them in any way shape or form, then that outta be a red flag for ya,” Holland said.
Cox Media Group