Love in cyberspace can be costly if you fall for a scam artist.
"Loving, caring and hardworking Christian," read the online dating profile of firstname.lastname@example.org.
When Ellen, a self-professed "lonely old widow" in Putnam County, received a note from Eric this summer asking if she wanted to chat, she was flattered. The two began exchanging e-mails, friendly at first, but quickly swelling in intensity and passion. They talked online for 18 hours at a time. She discovered they had similar religious beliefs and interests. Ellen received a box of chocolate candy, a teddy bear, flowers, a fruit basket and cards signed, "I love you." Ellen, 63, was hooked, even though she had never met him.
"I was so excited. We were sharing thoughts about God and were able to talk for hours online," she recently told the BannerGraphic. (Ellen's full name is not included to prevent any unwanted solicitations from other scam artists.)
Eric said he was from Phoenix, Ariz. but that he was out of the country at his business in West Africa. He promised he'd come visit Ellen for Thanksgiving. He couldn't wait, and neither could she.
The spirited e-mail romance hummed along for a few weeks before there was a problem.
"Never in my wildest dreams would I have ever known that this is all a part of an elaborate online scam. He used God to gain my trust," claimed Ellen.
Her excitement began to wane after Eric told her it was his birthday and he would like for her to buy him a laptop computer and mail it to him. He even provided what type and where to purchase it.
At first, Ellen believed it to be a joke but her new friend kept asking,
"Are you gonna' get it for me?" She began to wonder about his motivation and stopped talking to him briefly.
A day later, a deliveryman brought flowers, candy and nuts along with a card telling her "I love you with all my heart."
She bought a thank you card to send and went back online.
Suddenly Eric was ill. He disappeared online, leaving only a "brb" (be right back in computer talk).
Ellen next heard from Eric's friend who told her he needed money to pay hospital bills. Could she send cash? She didn't send any and became more suspicious. When Eric's friend began calling her "huni" Eric's term of endearment, she knew Eric and his friend were one and the same.
Angry and hurt, Ellen decided she was going to catch this man. She continued conversations with him, pretending to try to find money to send to him. When she offered to fly over and take care of him. He told her no, cash in the ticket and send the money.
Ellen might have been lonely, but she was no fool. She played along with the scam for more than a week while trying to get help in catching the villain. Ellen contacted the Indiana State Police, the Putnam County Sheriff's office and the Greencastle Police. There is little the local authorities can do to help victims.
She discovered that the scams -- sometimes called Nigerian or "sweetheart" scams -- are common. The Secret Service and other U.S. agencies have issued warnings about them. There is little that local authorities can do to help victims.
She also contacted WFMS Match Link, the online dating service she joined. They can block the e-mail and pin number but advise that won't stop the man from setting up another one. They also offered to provide all correspondence and sign up information with a subpoena from the local police.
Ellen shared her version of events with the BannerGraphic in hopes that others might not fall for the same trickery.
Meanwhile, Ellen and her daughter decided to send the man a few bucks in the thank you cards she purchased earlier. In fact they are going to send $2,000 to him. They picked up the wad of cash at the Dollar Store in the form of play money.
"He used God to get to me and I don't like that he played against being a Christian and had me convinced for awhile. I don't want any other lonely, gullible people falling for this type of scam. I hope he enjoys the play money," she stated.