Tom Ernsting radiates the kind of handsome silver-fox good looks of a character right off the Hallmark Channel, just the sort of guy that plenty of women would love to meet.
Unfortunately, Ernsting has heard from way too many scorned women.
"They scream at me and they yell at me for ruining their lives," said Ernsting, 60, who has a summer home in South Haven, Michigan, and spends the winter in Naples, Florida.
"The stories I've heard are insane."
One woman claims she handed over her credit card information to him and then he racked up $30,000 in charges.
Others were upset that they sent him $500 to help him get across the border into the United States so that he could travel to see them, but he never showed up. Some claim they lost money after they put cash on Apple iTunes gift cards to send to him.
"It's just crazy," Ernsting said. "It definitely took off during COVID because I think people were even more desperate and more lonely.
"It's sad because they fall in love with me."
Ernsting, who has worked as a professional model, says he did not reach out to these women via social media or dating apps and he doesn't have their money.
Ernsting does have a significant social media presence that scammers have impersonated in order to steal money from women who are desperately looking for love.
Sometimes, he's heard from a dozen upset women in a day who say they've been scammed by crooks using his pictures.
Some sexy shots online only make some copycat accounts more intriguing.
TMZ online highlighted Ernsting's shirtless look doing yardwork in August under the headline "Hot Dad Alert." TMZ said it "teamed up with smokeshows from around the world to create some eye-popping photo galleries with a DIY flare."
The TMZ report noted: "When Tom Ernsting isn't sharing these dirty photos for you to plant yourself in front of, he loves to explore the world, focus on his fitness regime and spend quality time with his son."
Sorry to be blunt, but is a guy whose buff photos are highlighted on TMZ going to be looking for love on Facebook? Really?
Ernsting, who grew up in Chicago and graduated from the University of Michigan, retired early from a job as a sales executive in the hotel industry, but then went to work as a model and freelance event manager. The pandemic hurt the event business, he says, but modeling is picking up some.
He has built up more than 150,000 Instagram followers. He's been paid as a social media influencer for Jed North, a sports athletic brand, and appeared in commercials for Ashley Furniture HomeStore and MyPillow.
"There aren't a lot of people my age who are that active on Instagram," Ernsting said, attributing some of his success to his demographic.
"I'm attractive enough to draw people in, but I'm not threatening, so people use my image to draw people in the door."
Scammers have been stealing his image to impersonate him and create variety of social media accounts to use in romance scams.
"I can't believe my image is a business for these people," he said. "They're making a living off my image. They're probably making more than I ever have."
Ernsting, who is gay, isn't trying to meet women. But he has responded to some who have reached out online and want to know what's going on. He tries to explain that his image is being used by hackers, maybe even part of sophisticated scamming rings overseas.
Too often, though, one response from him can snowball into someone wanting to tell their entire story, further a friendship and, sometimes, even hound him online. If he's photographed with a woman, some women will respond back to him online saying things like, "I thought you said you were gay."
Many times, daughters will contact him saying that they've repeatedly tried to tell Mom that the online love interest is a fake.
His conclusion: "You can't trust anybody. And it's really sad."
More hearts are broken online during the pandemic
The need to be physically distant to avoid contracting COVID-19 during the 2020 has led to a spike in social media scams, including romance scams. Someone who is nice looking, maybe a doctor, suddenly wants to be your friend on Facebook.
Like any potential scam, it doesn't hurt to do more research on this so-called profile. Google a person's name, just like you would a business, and the word "scammer."
You'd see that SocialCatfish.com, for example, notes that Tom Ernsting has one of the most catfished profiles in the world.
"We estimated that millions of dollars were stolen from fake profiles using Tom’s images since there were so many of them," according to the SocialCatfish.com site.
Scammers increasingly have been stealing the photos of social media influencers to use in romance scams, according to SocialCatfish.com.
The Federal Trade Commission notes that you can also "do a reverse image search of the person’s profile picture to see if it’s associated with another name or with details that don’t match up – those are signs of a scam."
And if someone is suddenly sending you overly complimentary emails or messages, be cautious.
"Paste the text into a search engine and see whether the same words show up on websites devoted to exposing romance scams," according to an AARP tip sheet on romance scams.
Since 2019, about half the reports involving phony lovers suggested the scam started on social media, usually Facebook or Instagram, rather than a dating site or dating app, according to Emma Fletcher, program analyst and author of the FTC data spotlight report.
"Since the pandemic began, more people than ever have reported losing money to romance scams," according to the FTC alert, including scams that start with a social media message or friend request.
According to the FTC, $201 million was lost due to romance scams in 2019, which was a 40% increase from $143 million in 2018. And the numbers are likely to be higher in 2020.
Retirees and older victims tend to lose the most money – the median individual loss associated with romance scams for people aged 70 and over was about $10,000, compared with $2,600 for all victims based on 2018 data.
Love interests who are scammed may be asked to send money repeatedly to cover one emergency after another.
Michigan had 433 people report being victims of romance scams, losing nearly $9.5 million in 2018, according to SocialCatfish.com.
You never want to give money – or gift cards – for any reason, no matter how sincere the person might seem. Block someone who keeps needing you to help them out by sending them money.
The FTC has launched a new website – ReportFraud.ftc.gov – where consumers can report a romance scam or other scam whether they have lost money or not. As part of this new service, the consumer also receives some advice on what to do next when it comes to a particular problem.
Signs of a romance scam take a new turn during the COVID-19 crisis
Over the years, one sure sign of a romance scam is the inability of the new love of your life to meet for drinks or dinner. Maybe the guy is working a construction job overseas. Or he's in the military and cannot visit you.
During 2020, though, the pandemic has given scammers a new excuse.
Your newfound online boyfriend or girlfriend now can't meet you because they don’t want to get you sick or there is limited travel where they are from due to the pandemic, according to a report by SocialCatfish.com.
And no, they can't video chat either because they reportedly have limited access to a Wi-Fi network during the coronavirus pandemic.
When the romantic ripoff artist promises to meet you in person, be prepared, because an excuse to cancel always comes up, according to an AARP tip sheet on romance scams.
The real reason you'll never meet is because the scammers don't look anything like the picture online. The scammers could be sitting in a room overseas trying to pretend to be the friendly guy or girl next door.
Ernsting says he believes romance scams could be more common than official reports indicate, based on what he's hearing from the women who contact him and the stories they're telling him privately about how much money they've lost.
Many do not want to admit publicly, he said, exactly how much money they gave away and lost to romance scammers.
"They're embarrassed – and their husbands could find out," he said.
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Romance scams: Michigan model shows a different side of fraud