International romance scam targets Overland Park widow out $70,0 - KCTV5

International romance scam targets Overland Park widow out $70,000

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KCTV5 News is unraveling an international scam involving our viewers after tracking down victims across the nation in a complicated romance scheme that involved an Overland Park nurse. (KCTV5) KCTV5 News is unraveling an international scam involving our viewers after tracking down victims across the nation in a complicated romance scheme that involved an Overland Park nurse. (KCTV5)
OVERLAND PARK, KS (KCTV) -

KCTV5 News is unraveling an international scam involving our viewers after tracking down victims across the nation in a complicated romance scheme that involved an Overland Park nurse.

Mary Martin is a widow who decided to date again and created a profile on Match.com. A person on the dating website suggested to she connect with a man named “Mark Belgard.”

“It just took off. It took off. I've got to hand it him, he sure writes some romantic letters. I've never been so swooned by the English vocabulary in my life,” Martin said.  

Martin says Mark ran into trouble she eventually sent him more than $70,000 of her life savings before she realized it was a scam.

“Dear God, I feel so stupid,” Martin said.

KCTV5 followed the money trail and found a web of victims including a widow in Atlanta who was told the same story. Mark is an international business man working in South Africa, but he’s in a crisis and needed help.

Martin, in Overland Park, thought she was paying for taxes. “Ann” in Atlanta was sent photos of an explosion where she was told people died.

“Three people were killed. Three workers. They wouldn't let him leave the country unless he took care of the families. I know it sounds completely ridiculous now. Always something and I wanted him to come back to Atlanta to me,” Ann said.

Ann told our investigative team she gave Mark more than $325,000.

We traced the money to a woman in Arizona named Deb who acted as a “money mule.” Her international boyfriend told her the same story but told her he needed her help to pay bills.

“I've got cash coming in, but I need to deposit it in an account in the states and have someone acting as an agent and pay my bills. I said okay,” Deb said.

Deb says she received more than $200,000 of Ann’s money and sent it all around the word, mostly South Africa.

Local investigators on the trail

Overland Park Detective Lance Jordan is sorting through a complicated web of finances.

“There is an intricate network, often times there are different accounts and different methods of sending money,” Jordan said. “It's very time consuming often by the time you figure where the money is going it already been to the next step or several steps ahead of you.  It’s usually gone by the time you find out where it is."

Investigators say when romance scams are local, there is a better chance of recovering the funds, but when money traces to countries like South Africa there is little to no chance of victims ever being re-compensated.

“It's terrible for some of these women. Some of these women spend their life savings thinking this is the person they are going to be with for the rest of their life. Or that their money will be replenished,” Jordan said.

Incriminating evidence leads to more victims

Our investigative team traveled to rural West Virginia when the face of the scam matched a man named Mark. We realized he could be the victim of identity theft.

“I'm appalled and shocked! To think you do this work and you’re out there on Facebook and trying to be a good person! You put who you are out there and then it could be turned to hurt someone, that's bad!” Mark said.

Mark explained he is friends with 5,000 people on Facebook and posts tons of pictures about himself.

He immediately recognized the hospital photo sent to Martin. She had been told “Mark Belgard” had the flu.

Mark explained he had quadruple bypass heart surgery. Most of the photos show his loving wife at his bedside. The crook stole the one photo of him lying by himself in the hospital bed.

 “I’m appalled. It's emotional, I'm sorry ... I’m getting the breadth of how big stupid this is. I'm mad!” Mark said.

Mark said he’d be happy to speak with investigators or anyone else to help unravel this mess.

KCTV5 confirmed with the detective on the case that none of the money ever leads to West Virginia. All of the widows confirm Mark is not the voice they heard on the phone.

Widows are the target

KCTV5 discovered widows are being targeted, probably because many of them are older, trusting and have nest eggs.

The women KCTV5 interviewed were fooled by pictures lifted from other sites. They also said they were unaware of “catfish” schemes.

“I thought catfish was something that swims around in the water and you fry!” said Martin.

Ann agrees she was not aware of the pitfalls of online dating.

“I don't know why I was so trusting of him. I really don't know other than I’m a very trusting person. So I guess that makes me the perfect victim right?” she said.

Ann says she continues to deal with self and embarrassment. She recently paid taxes on the money she gave to Mark because she withdrew money from investments.

"To throw away that kind of money or security ... my retirement. The self-loathing is very difficult to deal with," she said.

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