Vern Lewis is looking for love. His desire to find a connection led him to sign up at a popular dating website.
"I got a connection with this person online that said they had lived here but now they were living back in their country," Lewis said.
The woman, who said her name was Abi, told Lewis she was living in Ghana. The two started communicating, Lewis says, sending text messages and even having live video conversations. Each interaction caused the relationship to grow deeper. Then a few months in, Abi started asking for money.
"A few hundred the first time," Lewis said. "That was to put towards a visa."
The requests for money kept coming and soon the retired law enforcement officer had sent thousands of dollars to the woman he says he loved.
"You don’t count it unless you really want to have a heart attack," Lewis says. He believes he sent Abi "probably over $5,000."
The woman even sent Lewis an apparent visa and a boarding pass as proof that she was serious about coming to Miami to meet him.
"It’s just everything looked like it was a scam," says Mayra Joli, an immigration attorney.
Joli says she heard about Lewis and decided to try to help. It didn’t take long for her to spot problems with the visa.
"If it was a B1B2 visa, it’s a visitor’s visa," says Joli. But the visa the woman sent Lewis said it was an "H1B" visa, which is an employment – not a visitor’s visa – according to Joli.
Another red flag – the language used on the documents.
"The visa also states that this is a permanent resident for 3 months," Joli says. “How are you going to get a permanent resident from overseas to come here permanently for three months?"
When Joli reached out to the airline noted on the boarding pass, she says she was told the ticket didn’t exist.
But it wasn’t just Abi. Lewis also sent thousands of dollars to another woman named Margaret, who he says sent him provocative pictures. And it wasn’t only pictures. Lewis says he also had live video conversations with her.
“Her job is to get naked from time to time and play in the camera,” Joli says. “It was difficult for me to compete with a woman who had my client’s heart and is telling him things that are contrary to what I’m telling him is the reality.”
According to the FBI, romance fraud cost victims the United States more than $203 million in 2015. FBI Special Agent Jason Manar says being able to video chat with a person has helped scammers develop strong emotional connections with their victims.
“What we see is people preying on the best parts of people’s trust,” Manar says. “We see by the numbers elderly, divorced are typically more susceptible.”
The FBI says it’s very unlikely victims of online dating scams will be able to recover their money because by the time the crime is reported, the case is so old the money is long gone. But they still want to hear from potential victims because they do keep track of possible scamming groups overseas.
If you or a loved one have fallen victim to an online dating scam, you can file a complaint with the FBI here.