Online dating is a lot like rolling the dice: You make a connection and take your chances. But instead of finding love, one Massachusetts woman found herself in the middle of a scam, with thousands of dollars on the line.
Sandra Eckenreiter, of Fairhaven, a widow, thought she found a love interest on Match.com.
“He’s a nice looking man,” said Eckenreiter, holding a picture of a man she was told was "Sgt. Kennedy."
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The nice looking man, whose picture Eckenreiter was instantly drawn to, wrote he was an Army Sgt. from New Hampshire, on deployment in Afghanistan. After their initial contact on the dating website, they started to only text.
“He can’t physically call me, because he’s on some secret mission, and that should have been a flag there, but he’s on a secret mission and so we have to text,” explained Eckenreiter.
She says things moved quickly. The sergeant texting that he couldn’t wait to put a ring on her finger.
“I kind of put my brakes on — and I was pretty honest with him — I said you’re falling in love with a profile,” said Eckenreiter.
After months of texting, Kennedy told her he was coming to Providence to meet her.
“He had apparently with this mission, gotten a lot of money, gold bars, and he needed to bring it back, and then all of a sudden he gets stopped in Ghana,” explained Eckenreiter. “They’re not going to let him transport any of this stuff. He has all these fees he has to pay, and now he’s asking me to pay the fees, and I said I’m not helping you pay for anything.”
Eckenreiter was skeptical, but went ahead and wired him $4,000.
“It wasn’t until I slept on it that night and thought this is ridiculous,” said Eckenreiter.
She describes what happened next as divine intervention.
“It was Ash Wednesday and Ghana had an Independence Day. It was their holiday. All the banks were closed, so they could not retrieve money from the bank,” said Eckenreiter.
She was able to cancel the Western Union transaction. Coincidentally, she saw an ad for the website, socialcatfish.com and signed up. The website uses photos to verify identities.
When Eckenreiter plugged in the pictures that Kennedy sent her, photos of WNBC sports anchor Harry Cicma started popping up. Cicma’s online images were stolen and photoshopped, and passed off as the would-be Sergeant Kennedy.
NBC10 Boston Responds has no way of knowing who the scammer is or if they ever served in the military. Match confirmed to us the scammer in this case opened an account, and was blocked by them a day later and that they have a dedicated team and sophisticated technology that patrols for fraud.
Eckenreiter says she was shocked.
“Oh my God, this guy is right in New York, and he has no idea that he is being scammed as well,” said Eckenreiter.
Cicma’s photos also popped up on a Russian dating site. He said this isn’t the first time this has happened to him.
“I definitely feel helpless, because this is in Russia, this is in England, this is in America, this is happening all over,” said Cicma. “God knows how many people are doing this with my picture. I don’t even know how we can track all of these down. We just have to find a way to stop this and clean it up for everyone."
Marie-Helen Maras, an Associate Professor at John J. College of Criminal Justice, says catfishing schemes — where people lure romancers online — are common and it's likely Sandra was not the only victim.
“You have to do your research in this day and age, especially because you don’t know who is sitting behind a terminal,” said Maras. “You don’t know who you’re actually engaging with. All you have is an image and some personal information, and quite frankly, there’s no validation about the information that is placed online.”
Eckenreiter decided to confront her scammers.
“They said it was a hoax on the end of Western Union,” said Eckenreiter. “Sometimes you gotta use the gut and the head, and leave the heart out of the equation.”
Experts say when online dating, it's always a good idea to see the person in real-time, even via video messaging. Google them and conduct a reverse image search, like Eckenreiter did. And if you suspect something, report them to the Federal Trade Commission, the online dating platform, and the FBI’s Internet Crimes and Complaints Center.