When Heidi Lehmann posted her profile on Match.com and connected with an attentive, accomplished professional, the San Pedro nurse thought she’d finally found the perfect mate.
But the handsome businessman who found Lehmann on the world’s biggest dating website and promised to marry her was an impostor who scammed her out of $50,000, an NBC4 investigation found.
"They’re professionals," said Lehmann, 51. "They know exactly how to get you."
Federal authorities receive thousands of complaints each month about scammers posing as singles looking for love on internet dating sites.The con artists typically operate out of Asia or Africa, which makes apprehension nearly impossible, said Assistant US Attorney Ellyn Lindsay.
"These scammers are evil," Lindsay said. "They will say, they will do whatever to get the money."
In a written response to NBC4, Match.com said that the company employs 100 fraud team agents who screen every profile for possible scams, but acknowleged that "a few of these sophisticated criminals still slip through all of our checks."
Lehmann was an easy target. Divorced for 10 years, she was ready to return to the dating scene, and friends encouraged her to try her luck on Match.com.
She quickly struck up an online relationship with Arnold Hartman, a handsome, successful businessman who lived in Long Beach.
For five weeks, Hartman sent her romantic emails and photos of himself, and they chatted in real time via instant message.
"He knew exactly what to say to make himself seem legitimate," Lehmann said.
Hartman told Lehmann he wanted to meet her -- just as soon as he returned from a business trip to London.
Lehmann was smitten. She believed that she and her “match” would meet and fall into “a nice, happy relationship.”
When Hartman asked her to loan him money to clinch a business deal, Lehmann didn’t hesitate. She dug into her 401K to come up with the cash and wired him a total of $50,000 via Western Union and Moneygram.
But Arnold Hartman was a fake. The photos he was sending Lehmann were of a professional model who lives near Kansas City, stolen off the internet. Emails sent by the scammer posing as Hartman were traced to a computer in Lagos, Nigeria.
"I can totally see why women would send these men money," said Dawn Demars, 65, of Thousand Oaks. She, too, put her profile on Match.com, and was contacted by a man who seemed too good to be true.
"There’s a part of your heart that takes over your brain function," Demars said.
When Demars went on Match.com last fall, she got an immediate response from a man who said he was Frank Chadwicks of Oceanside.
He claimed he’d lost his wife to cancer and was ready to find a new love. During weeks of emails and dozens of phone calls, Chadwicks told Demars she was his dream come true.
"I’d love to wrap you in my arms," he told her in a live message chat.
That would happen, Chadwicks promised, as soon as he returned home from an extended business trip to Asia.
Demars became suspicious when he emailed to tell her he was having money troubles and asked for a $5,000 loan to buy a plane ticket home.
Demars was tempted to wire him the money, but something didn’t feel right. She contacted the FBI and Match.com, hoping they would pursue the scammer, but says neither responded.
"Women and men are left to protect themselves" when looking for love online, Demars said. "There’s nobody there to help you."
An NBC4 investigation found that Demars’ online suitor was an impostor. The Oceanside address Frank Chadwicks gave her doesn’t exist.
Facial recognition software showed that the photos of “Chadwicks” are of Jon Entine, an author who lives in Cincinatti. Entine had no idea his photos had been stolen off the internet.
"It’s a little creepy," he said. "There’s no question about it."
Demars is relieved that she didn’t send the scammer any money, but the experience has left her wary of online dating.
"It’s really odd when you have a lot of hopes and dreams that you think are coming true," she said. "And then they vanish."
Tune in Tuesday at 11 p.m. for Part 2 of our investigation: How to spot an online scammer, using a few free tools available on the Internet