A huge internet scam is breaking the hearts of thousands of people. A criminal network to defraud lonely people around the country with false promises of love and romance has also hit Tennessee.

The scammers sit at computers safely overseas, hunting for their prey on social networks, and they rarely get caught. The victims are often left financially damaged and so embarrassed that many are reluctant to come forward. However, a Jefferson County woman talked with WATE 6 On Your Side and wants others to know about the scam that’s cost her thousands.

Pat Wilhoit has been corresponding with a man on Facebook since January after he sent her a friend request. He also sent a picture, but Wilhoit didn’t realize it had been stolen, or cloned, by a scammer. 

Wilhoit was told Paul Stewart was a U.S. Army officer on a peacekeeping mission with the United Nations and presently based in Syria. She said they corresponded for months, talking about their lives. The scammer’s intention was to establish a relationship of trust. Then, a love note arrived and he wrote about the desire to be with her.

“He wanted to make love to me, hold me in his arms, kiss me. Buy a new house, a bigger house,” said Wilhoit.

Wilhoit received several messages containing love poems. Then the scammer’s real intention was made.  

“[He said he needed] money for a vacation certificate so he can come home from the UN. And then the UN, I got a message supposedly from the UN,” she said.

In that message from the scammer, Wilhoit needed to wire $5,600 so her boyfriend could fly to Tennessee. She sent several thousand dollars before her bank warned her to end the payments.

“They flagged it as a scam. The bank gave us that card with Western Union’s name on it to call them,” said Wilhoit.

Tony Binkley with the Better Business Bureau says the scam and similar ones have cost victims a billion dollars in the past two years. He said the scammers groom their victims on Facebook and the cons take their time doing it.     

“You give them a little bit, they’re going to ask for more before it stops, if it ever stops,” he said.

It’s been an expensive lesson for Wilhoit.

The FBI reports romance scams account for the highest financial losses of all internet-related crimes. The bureau’s Internet Crime Complaint Center said it received 15,000 romance scam complaints last year, a 20 percent increase over the previous year.

The FBI also says 82 percent of romance scam victims are over the age of 50 and they’re the ones defrauded out of the most money.