ORLANDO, Fla. - Having been through heartbreak, Rebecca D'Antonio said she wanted to be careful when she signed up for a dating site a few years ago.
"I thought I was being smart in the way I was filling it out because I had been through a couple of bad relationships and so I basically filled out my profile from the point of view of, this is the package I come in, this is what I will put up within a relationship, this is what I won't put up within a relationship, because I was trying to circumvent a lot of the drama that can happen and what I didn't realize was that I was giving scammers a road map around what would have been a lot of my red flags," said D'Antonio.
She wound up chatting with a man named Matthew, a single father with a 5-year-old.
"We hit it off really well. He knew just what to say to me to make me feel valued and special," said D'Antonio.
She said Matthew told her he lived in Australia. After establishing a relationship online and earning her trust, he preyed on her for money.
"His story was that he was traveling abroad and the card that he was using for his expenses had stopped working. His particular hook for me was the kid. I could not leave the child in a bad situation. So I had sent money to bring them home so he could fix whatever he needed to fix and, of course, there were all the usual problems. 'I'll pay you back, it's not a big deal, don't tell your friends that you're lending me money. I don't want to be embarrassed when I meet them,'" said D'Antonio.
Her kindness cost her.
"I'm about to be homeless, evicted from my apartment. When I explained to him, 'Look, I'm feeling suicidal and I'm scared and I don't know what to do. I have pills. I will take these pills,' and he said to me, and I will never forget, 'Well you have to do what you have to do,'" recalled D'Antonio.
A devastated Rebecca confided in an understanding friend.
"She looked me dead in the eye and said, 'You know this isn't your fault, right?' And I didn't know that. I didn't know that at all," said D'Antonio.
She later discovered she had been catfished by someone who was using a stolen identity.
"I was in such a fog of emotional and financial abuse because it is an emotional and financial rape that happens to you and, of course, you blame yourself for a lot of it," said D'Antonio.
She is now sharing her story on SocialCatfish.com to help others. She discovered the site through a support group.
"We help people find and verify people online and our focus is on online safety," said the site's founder, David McClellan.
Looking back, D'Antonio sees the red flags.
"I didn't realize when he was using endearments like, 'my darling,' 'my queen,' it's because they are scamming 25, 30 people at a time they can't afford to always use their name," said D'Antonio.
"If anybody asks you for money or to send you money to someone you've met online, turn and walk away. That's the first major thing," said McClellan.
And it's not just catfishing. Some dating apps can also be vulnerable to hackers.
"Hackers will get into that app or possibly even into your phone and they will take that and they will use that to find you, to track you and possibly do harm to you. Immediately when you sign up, go into your settings and make sure you're not being tracked. Turn off capabilities for that application to be up anytime that your phone is on," advised Chris Carter of App Royo.
D'Antonio is back on track financially and taking a lesson with her moving forward.
"Love yourself enough to walk away, run away, because relationships come and go. There can always be other relationships that don't require that dynamic, so love yourself enough not to fall into that trap," said D'Antonio.
For more information on the signs of catfishing, visit https://socialcatfish.com/blog/12-signs-might-getting-catfished-online/.