Romance scam victim 'just wanted to be loved'
A woman who was duped into sending thousands of pounds to a fraudster she met online has said she fell for the scam because she "wanted to be loved".
The Belfast woman said the scammer claimed to be a US marine and sent her a series of flattering messages.
He earned her trust over a number of weeks before asking to borrow money.
She spoke out about the romance scam after police in Northern Ireland revealed two other women lost nearly £105,000 in similar circumstances.
'Hello there, beautiful'
The Belfast woman, who did not want to be named, told BBC News NI she even booked flights to the US to meet her new lover before realising it was all a con.
She also said scam led to the break up of her existing relationship and left her and her children with "nothing".
"I'm ashamed of myself. I feel violated, I feel embarrassed," she said, but added that she was speaking out to encourage other scam victims to seek help.
The deception began on Instagram almost a year ago, and although she has since reported it to the police, she has given up hope of getting her money back.
"I received a message on Sunday evening, 19th March, saying: 'Hello there, beautiful. How are you? What are you up to?'," the woman explained.
"He told me that he was in the United States Marine Corps. He told me that he was based out in Uganda."
The scammer ingratiated himself by bombarding her with compliments such as: "You look good today, you look lovely."
The pair exchanged phone numbers and woman admitted that at the time, the attention he paid to her made her feel special.
"I was just crazy - I just wanted to be loved and cared for," she said.
"I think whenever you're sucked into that world, you want to hear anything and everything that's being said to you."
As her online romance progressed, the woman's relationship with the father of her children ended.
About five weeks after making initial contact on Instagram, the fraudster sent his first request for financial assistance.
"Basically, I was given a sob story that they were all on the ship travelling over to Uganda and his wallet fell overboard", the woman recalled.
"I have no idea about the US military, their laws etc., so yes I admit I was vulnerable. Groomed, I would say groomed."
Initially, he asked her to send him a phone, and she complied with his request.
Shortly afterwards, she sent him cash for the first time - almost £1,500.
After it was transferred, he asked for more, and not just more money. The cash-strapped marine also said he needed clothes and trainers.
"I was told: 'I'll pay you back whenever I get my money, I'll give you every cent back', the woman said.
Keen to meet her new lover in person, the woman planned a 10-day trip to the US and had paid for her flights.
"I was told a couple of weeks before flying out that he was in an explosion and he couldn't fly," she said.
Although that story made her "question" her situation, she still wanted to believe in him.
"I think when you're sucked into this cyber dating, you want to believe anything and everything that they say to you.
"It's just a business to them, they have no thought, feelings... on what's left behind and what we have to deal with."
A short time later, she became suspicious while looking through photos that he had sent to her.
She noticed that in some early pictures he had tattoos but in other, purportedly later photos, those tattoos had mysteriously disappeared.
"It basically clicked with me that this was an imposter," the woman said.
She said she "confronted" the scammer with her suspicions but has made no progress in getting her cash back, and it was money she could ill-afford to lose.
"I was sitting in the house with nothing, and that person knew I was sitting with nothing," she said.
"He has basically stolen from my kids' mouths."
She reported the fraud to police in August. She said she was told she would hear more about the investigation within three months, but has not had any further response.
"People need to be more vigilant and more aware of who they speak to," she warned.
"I know for a fact I'll not see any of my money."
In a statement, the Police Service of Northern Ireland said: "On 31 August 2018 police received a report that involved a woman who had been befriended by a man on a social media platform, who claimed to be in the US Army.
"The woman forwarded money and various items to this individual. This incident is being investigated by Action Fraud."
Action Fraud is the UK's national reporting centre for fraud and cybercrime.
The Belfast woman's story is remarkably similar to the experience of one of the two women from Northern Ireland who recently lost nearly £105,000 between them in romance scams.
In a public warning on Tuesday, police revealed that one of the victims was befriended by a man claiming to be a US marine.
They said he conned her into sending him £65,000 after telling her that he was being held by authorities in Africa and needed money to get out.