BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) - Jennifer was feeling good about herself. After being single for 15 years, she was ready to date and hopefully find someone with whom she could spend the rest of her life.
Instead, Jennifer (not her real name) became a victim of a cyber-dating scam artist who lured her into turning over her life's savings totaling $50,000. Jennifer asked not to be identified for fear that it would jeopardize her career.
This mother of two believed she had found the man of her dreams on a popular dating web site. They communicated by phone, email and text messages and she immediately liked his smile and was impressed by his kindness and his love for everything that she liked.
She was swept off her feet and fell in love with the words and voice of a man she never met in person. "I just fell. I just fell," Jennifer recalls about the seven-month relationship. "I made a big mistake. It's embarrassing. I feel foolish that I did it."
She says he even proposed. "It was like a dream come true. And I'm an idealist maybe that I really felt that he was made for me. Honest to God."
She sends her life's savings so he could visit
She says he portrayed himself as a wealthy businessman who expressed feelings of love and kindness. He even emailed photos and a video sealed with a kiss.
In one email he wrote, "I have never felt such tenderness for anyone as I do for you."
"All I wanted to do was meet him. All I wanted to do is move forward. Not realizing that I was constantly being put - a block was constantly being put in front of me."
At one point the man claimed that he was working a big job overseas and desperately needed money for a damaged machine part, but couldn't liquidate his own funds because he's in a foreign country.
"We started down this whole path of that he needed money in order to get a part to get the machine fixed so that he could come home and be with me,” Jennifer explains.
He wrote to her, "Being a team, I know we can go through this together and come out stronger. I am counting on you my love."
Scammer can be next door or across the world
Det. John Stendardi of the Amherst Police Department has been working the case for months trying to track down the individual or group behind the scam.
"He could be right next door to us or he could be across the world,” Det. Stendardi says.
Stendardi says that well-intentioned people, men and women, fall for these romance scams, "We see it locally where people do it within a few weeks or a few days. I've seen some of the richest, most powerful people in this area happen to and to the poorest. It happens to everybody."
Jennifer says she knows now that the man was manipulating her to want to see him, so that she would do whatever he needed to make that dream come true. "I wanted him to be with me. And I felt the sooner I get the money to him. The sooner he'll be able to get the part. He would be able to come home to the United States."
The money which she withdrew from her retirement account was supposed to be a loan just for a week. She soon discovered that her money was never coming back.
Jennifer's story sounds all too familiar to the FBI which tracks cyber crimes, according to Brian Boetig, Buffalo FBI special agent in charge.
"They take that information and they aggregate it together to try to make a much larger national picture out of these isolated incidents," Boetig told News 4.
Cyber crimes are often very complex cases because the base of operations could be anywhere in the world, he says. It's one of the biggest problems that law enforcement faces today.
"Cyber criminals will exploit technical vulnerabilities as well as emotional vulnerabilities," Boetig adds.
The hope is for investigators to build the biggest case possible with numerous victims. While the FBI works some of the cases - those involving the largest group of victims and the most money - many are handled by local and state police. Boetig says cases can be prosecuted even if the victim willingly sends money to the predator.
"There is theft by deception that occurs online when people willingly give money to somebody," Boetig says. "The Canadian lottery scams that people send money; nobody is forcing them to. They're just built on lies is why the person is willing to send that money."
FROM THE FBI | How to spot an online dating scam artist
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The New York State attorney general's office asks that romance scam victims also file a complaint with their office.
She speaks out to warn other women
In Jennifer's case, the predator told her a story of need that got more and more complicated.
"I believed it," Jennifer recalls. "I believed it. Unfortunately I did. In hindsight there's so many red flags but I didn't see it."
Det. Stendardi knows that cracking the case is likely an uphill battle, but he refuses to give up.
"They're predators. They know what they're doing. This is their job and they will look for a weakness and a chink in your armor. And once they have the little hook in there they go at it. It's like a shark with blood in the water."
Jennifer knows now that the man she thought loved her violated her trust. "What they do is they find the good qualities in you and use it against you, and that's what he did."
Boetig says anyone involved in a cyber-relationship must insist on seeing the person or break it off. "Relationships - while they may begin online - they've got to have some aspect in the real world for them to really materialize before you want to get to intimate and share money, pictures or anything else with somebody," says Boetig.
From its work in romance scams, the FBI has compiled a list of behaviors by online predators. Looking back, Jennifer says she experienced them all. She decided to share her nightmare with News 4 in hopes of helping other women.
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