Better Call Behnken: Tampa Bay area man out $400 in 'Plenty of Fish' dating scam

(WFLA) - Another victim stepped forward to warn others about an online dating scam, bilking victims out of tens of thousands of dollars.

This time, the Tampa Bay area man forked over $400, convinced that he had been tricked into breaking the law. Scammers told him the woman he had been texting with was actually a 16-year-old girl.

He turned to Better Call Behnken to share his story, in hopes others won't fall for the scam. He wants to protect his identity, so we're calling him Charlie.

"I've always heard horror stories about stuff like that, and even being alleged and found innocent later and all that stuff is bad, and I thought, 'dear God, this is not me. It's not who I am,'" Charlie said.

Charlie and the woman met on Plenty of Fish and exchanged nude photos of each other.

Then, Charlie got a call from a man, claiming he was the girl's father. He threatened to call police, unless Charlie paid money.

The scam works because it is sophisticated with many layers of deceit. It convinces victims that they broke the law, face arrest and that their reputations could be ruined. Victims are told the new love interest they met on a dating website is actually an underage girl. The whole thing is a scam.

It happened to another Tampa Bay man who turned to Better Call Behnken to warn others.

He also didn't want his name shared for obvious reasons, so we're calling him Rusty.

"This literally probably took years off my life," he said.

Rusty also turned to the dating website Plenty of Fish. He heard success stories from friends who made connections on the site and even found their spouses.

"I've had a couple of friends who have met people on this site and have gotten married, so I figured I'd give it a try," Rusty said.

At first, things looked promising. He met a 27-year-old woman. They started texting, and it was exciting. The texts were innocent at first, then she turned up the heat.

"At some point she started to send me, you know, some revealing pictures, and you know, she asked me for some in return," he said.

Eventually, Rusty played along, sending pictures of himself that he now regrets.

After that, things changed. The woman dropped a bombshell.

"She said something like, um, 'are you ready to do so-in-so to this 17-year-old body?' And immediately I responded, '17?'" he recalled.

Rusty says he cut it off and deleted her phone number. But the next call was from Tampa police, or so he thought. The caller claimed to be a detective and said he was investigating underage sexting. The girl's father had called police, according to the detective, and was ready to press charges.

"He read off three different felony counts and threatened me with up to... I think it was 25 years in prison," Rusty said.

Rusty was a little suspicious - and scared - so he looked up the phone number online. He was terrified when it showed up as Tampa police. He called the number, and Tampa police answered. He told a dispatcher about the call but says he was told no one could check it out for him because of the sensitive nature of the investigation.

"That phone number made me believe," Rusty said.

Then things got even weirder when the girl's father wanted to talk on the phone, "man-to-man." Rusty called him.

The "dad" sounded legit until he hinted that money could make the nightmare go away.

Rusty searched the internet for answers and found hundreds of similar stories from victims across the country. The crooks end up asking for money, usually to pay for counseling for the "daughter." Some victims have paid hundreds of dollars.

"The stories were exactly the same," he said. "I knew then it was a scam."

That truth didn't come in time to save him from days of fear, "just waiting for the cops to show up."

Rusty called Better Call Behnken because he wants others to know about this scam. If people know, they won't fall for it, Rusty hopes. One of the things that convinced him to tell his story is that he read stories from other men who were so distraught that they considered suicide.

"To be innocent and have that feeling is horrible," Rusty said.

Tampa police spokesman Steve Hegarty had never heard of the scam before a call from Better Call Behnken. He said there are no police reports at TPD, likely because victims are embarrassed. Some may not even know they were scammed.

"There are many layers to it, so even if you're skeptical after the first layer, you might think, 'oh, wow, this is really getting to be a big problem,'" Hegarty said.

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