Florida widow loses $270,000 after falling in love online

Woman: First mistake was giving phone number to complete stranger

By Mike Holfeld, Jodi Mohrmann - Managing Editor of special projects

ORLANDO, Fla. - Investigators looking into the case of a Florida widow who lost her life savings after falling in love with a man she met online believe it's not just the work of one man, but rather a sophisticated ring that could be duping other women out of money, too.

Diane Standish of Orlando tried the online dating site Match.com last year. She quickly fell for a man with a German accent, despite never meeting him in person.

"I never thought I could fall in love with somebody on the telephone," said Standish.

The man called himself Jerry Michael, also known as Darnell Michael, who claimed to be a German contractor who was working on a project in Bakersfield, California.

"For some reason, he just said the right things to me,” she said.

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Despite cautions on the Match.com website not to give money to anyone you meet online, Standish 
handed over thousands without reservation.

“I’ve talked to a million people who said they met on eHarmony or Match.com and they’re happily married," Standish said. “So I didn't have any reason to question it.”

Standish said Michael had claimed he had fallen on tough times and needed help with legal costs, so she withdrew cash from her account and deposited money for him into accounts with different banks. 

"It was mostly lawyer fees, bail money," she explained. “I went through my bank accounts and it was $270,000."

Standish said Michael told her he was coming to Orlando to marry her, which is why she decided to send him the money.

“I loved him and he said he loved me,” she said.

Michael had shared photos of himself, but little did Standish know at the time, the photographs he passed off as his own were not, in fact, pictures of him.

Our sister station in Orlando, News 6, looked at a photo Michael was using on his Facebook page -- one with him standing next to a statute of Mother Teresa -- and then compared it to hundreds of online photographs.

That comparison revealed the man pictured in the photo was actually former Bosnian ambassador Flamur Gashi -- not Jerry Michael or Darnell Michael. 

News 6 contacted the Bosnian embassy and advised them of what was happening. Gashi is married with three children, and he apparently had no idea he was being used in an online romance scheme.

Standish fell in love with photographs, text messages and a voice. Now, all she has to show for it is a paper trail of bank records with $270,000 of her money gone.

She does have one other thing: an IOU email "Michael" had sent her. Orlando detectives told Standish his email led to South Africa, and currently, there is no chance of getting her money back. They believe this is an elaborate ring, and likely not the work of one man.

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Standish said the first mistake she made -- before ever giving the man any money -- was leaving the Match.com site and giving him her personal cellphone number.

Search a photo on the internet

There are several ways you can do what's called a reverse search on the internet, and try and locate the origin of a photograph. Search engine giant Google offers its own reverse image lookup that will cross-reference an uploaded photograph with a database of other images online. Here's how:

  • Visit Images.Google.com
  • Click on the camera icon in the search bar
  • Either upload the image you wish to check, or paste its URL into the field
  • The results will reveal where, if any place, the image has appeared before
  • Please note: Google will sometimes list a duplicate image as an original if it has been altered enough to look different

In addition to Google, there are a range of website that offer similar services. For instance, TinEye.com is a website that will perform a reverse image lookup free of charge. Here's how to use it:

  • Go to TinEye.com
  • Either upload the image or paste the URL you want to check out
  • It may take a few moments, but the search results will automatically load on your screen
  • Using TinEye, it's possible the search engine will pull in similar, though not identical, photographs if there isn't a perfect match.

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