JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Meeting your true love online is a real possibility in today's high-tech world, but for 38-year-old Rob, true love wasn't true at all.
"She would tell me how nice I was, how great a guy I was," he told Action News. "You know, basically pumping me up and building up my confidence."
Her name was Isabelle and they met through a mutual Facebook friend. At the time, Rob didn't realize his mutual friend didn't really know her at all.
"Maybe a week or two later we started talking on the phone, and I, unfortunately, got pretty involved pretty quickly."
Over the next three months, Rob says he fell in love with a woman he'd never met. She told him her parents left her an inheritance and a home in Miami, that she'd studied overseas and was living in Montreal. Rob spent hundreds of dollars on calls and gifts, before offering to fly 1,400 miles to visit. Isabelle refused.
"She got very angry, I'm not sure why, but she said she would come down when she felt like coming down."
Rob did some digging after Isabelle gave him an address in Ajax, Ontario to send a gift. She told him the Canadian mail system runs packages through Ajax, before forwarding them to Montreal. Rob sent the gift via UPS, which assured him the package would only go as far as the exact address listed. As they spoke on the phone days later, the package was delivered. That's when Rob asked Isabella why she lied about her address, and why none of the pictures she posted online were personal.
"All of her pictures were professionally taken or generic shots of animals. I asked her why and she said she was friends with many DJs and she wanted to keep her private life off the internet."
Isabelle became angry with Rob's questions, and never made the trip to Jacksonville for Thanksgiving. That's when Rob knew his love was a scam, commonly known as "catfishing."
It's a story St. Johns County Sgt. Chuck Mulligan hears time and time again from victims of online dating scams. Many have lost thousands of dollars to people they love.
"I think the feelings and emotions and connections they make are real. The question is, is the person on the other end real, and are they only telling you what you want to hear?"
Mulligan says the number of victims is hard to track, because these scammers may not be criminals.
"The individuals are willingly and knowingly sending money to someone who they knowingly have never met, so many times these are civil cases so criminally we cannot pursue them, and scammers know that."
Mulligan says the biggest sign of a scammer is their refusal to meet in person, which is often blamed on a tragic event.
"They'll often blame a car accident, or a family death or illness," said Mulligan. "The more stories they have to not meet you in person, the more reason to be very cautious."
The FBI says the number of unsuspecting victims like Rob is growing, and could be in the hundreds of thousands every year.
"I should have known better, but I trusted and believed her. It was a fluke and I felt stupid about the whole thing. My advice to others who may go through this is to trust, but verify. If there's something that seems a little off, look into it."
Go to the FBI's web site to learn more about protecting yourself and to report online dating scams