CLEARWATER, Fla. (WFLA) — It’s the kind of scam that works because it plays on your heart strings. Deep down, you know it’s not real. You see the big, red flags, but the remote possibility that you found true love is just too hard to pass up.
Even if costs you lots of money, and your dignity. It’s called a romance scam, or catfishing scam and Americans are losing millions of dollars because they fall for it.
Don Whitehead, of Clearwater, desperately wants to believe the woman he has wired more than $3,000 over the past four months is real. He called 8 On Your Side’s Better Call Behnken for the truth and found out more than he bargained for.
It all started on an Internet chat site, Google Hangout. Whitehead set up a profile to meet people, and a girl named Marilyn Ahinee reached out to chat. At first, the chats were typical get-to-know-you talks, then she wanted to talk on the phone. On the fourth phone call, things got strange. Marilyn claimed to be from Chicago. She said she was trapped in Ghana, in West Africa, after a trip to work as a midwife went terribly wrong. She needed help from Whitehead to get by and then get home. She needed cash for motels, clothes, and food.
At first, Whitehead did not believe this story.
“I said, “You know, if that’s what this is about, we need to close this up now,” Whitehead said.
But, Marilyn convinced him she was for real.
“Sometimes people do fall between the cracks,” Whitehead said.
She said she had fallen in love with him. She sent photos. Photos of her in places that looked like Ghana, photos of her at dinner, at parks. What really convinced Whitehead is a photo of Marilyn with a fork and spoon. Whitehead thought he was testing her.
He doubted the story, doubted her voice, which has an accent and didn’t sound like it matched the photos that the woman sent. So, he asked her to snap a photo of herself holding a fork and spoon in her right hand. He asked her to do it immediately so she would have no time to manufacture a photo. Within 10 minutes, he had the photo. He was hooked.
He sent money, a little at a time, and his friends told him was crazy. Every time Whitehead tried to walk away, Marilyn convinced him she was real.
So he called 8 On Your Side’s Better Call Behnken to help find the truth. We found the photos Don received from Marilyn in other places on the Internet and quickly learned the woman in the photos is an adult film star who goes by the name of Aria Giovonni.
We found page after page online of fake dating profiles with Giovonni’s photo and different names. There’s Vivian, Damaris, Beatrice, Sheila, Vera, and Vidisha.
At first, that still wasn’t enough to convince Whitehead. He said Giovonni told him the actress had stolen her photos and she had even gone to the police.
So, we spoke to the woman on the phone and she could not answer simple questions about her life in Chicago, like what street she grew up on or what high school she attended.
Whitehead was convinced Marilyn was fake. But then she faked a web chat, using an old video chat Giovonni had on the internet. He fell for it again. So we chatted with Marilyn on video and pointed out to Don that there was no audio. We showed him real video interviews with Giovonni.
“Unbelievable,” Whitehead said. “Wow, I fell for this, hook, line and sinker.”
It turns out, this scam is quite popular. Scammers, usually from another country, set up fake profiles and often use photos of exotic dancers and film stars. These stars have so many photos online that scammers have many to choose from. Dan Capozzi, of Centerfold Strips, says he’s very familiar with this type of scam and has heard of this happening to other women.
Dave Michaels, with A-List Features, a Tampa company that books exotic dancers for appearances, says film actresses are easy targets for this kind of scam because when they are no longer active in the business, they are not looking online enough to find their photos used for scams.
“Crooks create fake profiles and websites,” Michaels said. “It’s easier to get away with it when the star is not really active in the business anymore. It’s sad for everyone involved.”
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