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Is my online lover a FAKE? We investigate a U.S. Army major who’s dating a 70-year-old reader | #lovescams | #military | #datingscams | #datingscams | #love | #relationships | #scams | #pof | #match.com | #dating

We all know at least one happy couple who fell in love after meeting online. 

After watching her friends find their perfect match, Clara Pierce* was hopeful that she too would enjoy a serious relationship with her boyfriend Shawn, whom she met on TikTok last November.

Clara, 70, from Cheshire, admits she was initially sceptical when Shawn messaged her out of the blue on the video social media app requesting to follow her, but once they started chatting via text, they couldn’t stop — and began messaging several times a day.

The only thing preventing them meeting in person was that Shawn, a 55-year-old Sergeant Major in the U.S. army, was posted in Israel and would not return from his tour of duty to his home in Florida until May, she says. 

In the meantime, he needed help paying his phone bill so they could continue to message, for which she willingly sent £1,534.99 in total. In return, Shawn surprised Clara with a silver necklace sent to her home, where she lives alone.

Romance scam: Last month we warned about a rise in scammers posing as US military personnel deployed to the Middle East, who then asked for money

Although the couple had never spoken over the phone, Clara planned to fly to Florida on his return, when he said they could finally start their lives together.

But as Clara read Money Mail on Valentine’s Day last month, she says she was overcome by a feeling of dread. 

Our report about a romance scammer who concocted stories and identities to prey on women had alarming similarities to her own online relationship, she says.

We had warned about a rise in scammers posing as U.S. military personnel deployed to the Middle East, who then asked for money to pay for phone bills, uniforms or food and who typically ask for the payments to be made via Bitcoin.

This matched Shawn’s back story word for word. Clara, a retired pharmacy technician, could not ignore the warning signs so she approached Money Mail in the hope that we could put her fears about Shawn to rest.

She told us: ‘I started thinking something isn’t right but I’m fond of him and he seems really genuine so I hope it turns out all right. I don’t want to jeopardise our relationship, but I desperately need to know for sure. I’d be so upset if he turned out to be a fraudster.

‘Are there really many American soldiers posted in Israel and patrolling against Hamas? Any time I ask Shawn or question him he makes me feel guilty, talks me round and says he would never lie to me. I don’t know what to do.

‘Perhaps I’m being cynical, but it does seem a bit far-fetched him being there and, if he is 55, surely that is too old for active duty.’

Clara had felt uneasy at the age Shawn had given, 55, when he appeared closer to 35 in his pictures. The 70-year-old’s daughter also voiced her concern over Shawn’s legitimacy, asking her to be careful. 

Clara’s own digging found Shawn online and she checked his phone number was indeed a Florida number (which it was) but found no evidence of his age.

Money Mail agreed to team up with top fraud experts at Nationwide, Clara’s building society, to investigate whether her relationship was fake and if the money was funding criminals. The proof we found was irrefutable.

Probe: We discovered that the pictures Clara had been sent of Shawn had been used by scammers to financially exploit other women and were listed on scam warning websites

We discovered that the pictures Clara had been sent of Shawn had been used by scammers to financially exploit other women and were listed on scam warning websites. 

The home that Shawn said he owned in Florida had also recently been sold. Over the three months of their relationship, Clara had sent £1,534.99 in five transactions to Shawn, several of which were made via Bitcoin.

She says: ‘He said he needed money to pay his phone bills, which were £250 each time.

‘He also doesn’t like the food in Israel and needed money to buy American food, which he said was expensive.

‘Shawn told me he couldn’t access his bank account and wouldn’t be able to get the money if it wasn’t paid with Bitcoin so I had to learn how to do that.’

However, the third transfer to a crypto currency app failed to go through, for reasons unknown to Nationwide and Clara. 

She says she was then told by Shawn to send the money to a Mr Bohdan Samoniuk, who Shawn claimed would be able to get the money to him.

Jim Winters, director of economic crime at Nationwide, says: ‘This case was a textbook example of a romance scam and, by reading the Daily Mail’s article, our customer was able to realise many red flags were apparent in her own situation. While it is upsetting, we’re pleased to have put a stop to it early.’

Clara has blocked Shawn on all social media and said she will no longer speak to him. ‘I’ve been so fond of him, it’s very upsetting because he sent such lovely messages. I live alone and when we started chatting I got drawn in,’ she says.

Clara has now received a full reimbursement from Nationwide of money she transferred to the criminal posing as Shawn.

Most banks should reimburse you if you’ve transferred money to someone because of a scam but they are able to refuse refunds where you haven’t been ‘sufficiently careful’.

This applies, for example, if you didn’t pay attention to warnings your bank gives you or if you failed to let your bank know as soon as possible if you suspect you’ve been scammed.

Mr Winters says: ‘Anyone can become a victim of a romance scam because criminals can be persuasive enough to get someone looking for love or feeling lonely to give them their trust, personal details and ultimately money, even if they haven’t met.’

Romance scams have jumped by a fifth in the past year, according to Lloyds Bank. An estimated £4.3million has already been lost to romance fraud this year, according to banking trade body UK Finance.

Clara says: ‘I feel humiliated but I’m so grateful to the Mail and Nationwide. Shawn the scammer is now deleted, lesson learnt!’

*Names have been changed.

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