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SALT LAKE CITY — Carl Estep found his way into the hearts and pocketbooks of women through online church dating sites. During an undercover meeting with Estep, the FBI Salt Lake City Division caught him on camera declaring that he was just a ranch kid from Idaho who had worked hard for every dime he'd earned.
After that law enforcement operation, Estep went to prison convicted of swindling two women he met on the Internet out of more than $300,000. According to the FBI, "romance scams" are a crime that can break the hearts and banks of women. Annual reports released by the Internet Crimes Complaint Center show female complainants have lost $80 million in the past two years to such schemes.
KSL gathered a group of tech-savvy women who have used online dating sites to find out how to identify the scam artists.
"It is daunting when you first try it," one of the panelists said.
Stories of the women's online dating experiences ranged from the bizarre — one man who said he wanted to date a woman who would consider a polygamist lifestyle — to other encounters that were more dangerous.
"He would come to me and used his physicality and his bigness to overtake me — quite scary and I had to pretty much run," another panelist said.
"I don't think I've had any horrible experiences, but I have had some disappointing experiences where people misrepresented who they were," another woman said.
According to a Pew Internet and American Life study, 54 percent of online daters have felt that someone else seriously misrepresented themselves in their profile.
"I told him, 'I am not going to tell you where I live.' He said, 'I already know where you live.' "
28 percent of people polled said they had been contacted by someone in a way that made them feel uncomfortable. Several of the panelists said it had happened to them.
"Just today a man said he was married and looking for someone on the side and I had to gracefully decline," a panelist said. "I will check to see if they are a registered sex offender."
These women said they recognize that delving into world of digital dating comes with its share of risks. One of them discovered that she learned her Facebook pictures revealed more than she realized. She said she thought she was taking extra precautions by not posting her address or where her online photographs geo-tagged. However, she said the man who was courting her online, figured out her location all on his own.
"I told him, ‘I am not going to tell you where I live.' He said, ‘I already know where you live.' "
Another panelist said she recently met a man on Facebook she knew was too good to be true, but she was surprised at what KSL had uncovered when reporters started investigating the man who claimed his name was Harry Smith.
Using a website called Romancescam.com, KSL learned the e-mail she had received originated in Nigeria and the photo he'd sent her was really a picture of a male model. Other online schemers had also used the same model's photograph with several different names.
The panelists said there are ways to be successful in online dating and they offered helpful advice for women to avoid being scammed. They suggested not allowing a relationship to drag on over the Internet and if someone refuses to meet, it is typically a sign it is a scam.
For safety reasons, the panelists also said not to give out a home address and instead to meet someone during the day in a public place. They also suggested letting family or friends know where you will be and when the date will end.
Each of the women pointed out many of the risks that exist online also exist offline, but there are more chances to meet people online.
"I've had a lot of good experiences where it has gone somewhere and lead to a relationship," a panelist said.