A FALMOUTH woman says she has been conned out of thousands of pounds in an online dating scam.
Jenny Phillips has suffered from ill health as a result of the four-month ordeal during which she says she was duped into paying out more than £10,000 to someone she met online.
Now the retired company director is warning other women to beware of the criminals who prey on lonely women looking for friendship.
Mrs Phillips joined an online dating service in June looking for a penpal while her husband worked overseas.
After filling in the form and ticking the 'friendship' box, she met a man claiming to be called Jeff Hart.
"He was nice," she said. "He made me feel happy."
Mrs Phillips regularly chatted for up to three hours to her new friend online between June and October. They also spoke on the phone.
She says the man claimed to be aged 56, from San Diego, living in Gloucestershire, and a marine engineer who was about to embark on a 'big' contract laying communication cables in Ghana.
He planned to use the profit to pay off the mortgage on his mum's house and pledged to take Mrs Phillips to San Diego.
But soon he started asking for money to bankroll the project, offering her a healthy return.
"He said he had spent all his savings and needed some money," said Mrs Phillips. "He told me I was his only friend. I believed him.
"He just made me feel good about myself. He used a bit of flattery. That is how he was manipulating me."
Mrs Phillips said she made payments between £400 and £4,000, totalling more than £10,000, through his 'business partner' Richard Williams via Western Union transfer.
Mrs Phillips started to get suspicious in late September. She says she refused to pay any more money to him and started asking questions about his identity and address, to which Mr Hart reacted "aggressively".
"There was always something that wasn't quite right. Part of the address was wrong."
In an e-mail to Western Union's customer service department she said: "He told me his address in the States but it transpires that he does not own this property.
"He also said he owned a property in Gloucestershire but Land Registry details refute this."
She broke off contact with Mr Hart in early October. He had told her he was suffering from malaria and might be unavailable.
Last week Mrs Phillips says she got a call from Western Union. "They told me that there were loads of payments to Richard Williams from different people. That's when I knew I'd been conned.
"I started to get suspicious before that but my heart said one thing and my head said another. I was ignoring the doubtful bits."
Mrs Phillips was also prompted to speak out by a television documentary about such scams by criminal gangs in Africa.
"They're very clever. I was naive. The whole thing made me angry."
Mrs Phillips now suffers from Bell's palsy and depression, which she believes was brought on by the ordeal.
"I don't want this to happen to other women," she said.
"Don't send any money to anybody you've never met. Don't be sucked in by people you don't know."