CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCBD)– Business owner Zahra Hajiaghamohseni is always looking for ways to network online, so when she first received a direct message from another business account in October, she was hopeful her newly founded company was gaining traffic.

“It was just very generic conversation that was pretty benign. ‘What industry are you in? What do you do?’,” she described. “That is how I learned this particular account hypothetically specialized in virtual currency exchange,” she added.

The messenger, whose profile featured pictures of a handsome man living a lavish lifestyle, explained alleged cryptocurrency investment strategies and promised big returns. Hajiaghamohseni had been looking to invest money so she handed over $200,000.

“I initially was just looking for a virtual currency component and then three weeks in it turned into more of a personal component where emotions are involved,” she said.

The scammer, who was using a fake identity and photos stolen from a legitimate account, was grooming her to think she was in a whirlwind romance and slowly gained her trust. He explained that he would soon be retiring from an engineering career that required work on offshore oil rigs but until then he needed to borrow $150,000 for expensive machinery parts.

He directed Hajiaghamohseni to work with a legal secretary who used her law firm’s email server to facilitate the money transfers.

“There were layers of real people added to the equation. It got very complex and added to the confusion. The scam group obviously knows what they are doing. The formula of intentional confusion. In my case the association of law firm and a legal secretary and a real mailing address,” she said.

Zahra worked with that woman to transfer the money…a real legal secretary based in Missouri.

On Dec. 22, she went to the airport to pick up the man she thought she was in love with. He had initiated the meeting and allegedly purchased the travel but never showed up.

Within days she realized she had been swindled out of $350,000.

“That’s where I found myself on Christmas day. Holy cow. You are really smart. You think you are really smart and all that sort of drops when you don’t have experience in the direct environment,” she said.

Zahra Hajiaghamohseni

Detective James Jackson with the Charleston Police Department is investigating the case and said these scammers are often parts of larger professional criminal organizations and involve multiple people.

“We do see victims that initially are sending the money and then all of the sudden accept money from other people and become that money mule,” Detective Jackson said. “They send money overseas and are money mules for bad actors.”

In some cases, the crime is state-sponsored but successfully tracking down international criminals is rare.

“It becomes very difficult, not to say it hasn’t happened in the past,” he added. “There have been arrests made in identifying bad actors but it’s generally done on a very large scale.”

According to the Federal Trade Commission, Americans reported losing $1 billion to romance scams last year. That is more than any other fraud category they investigate. Kevin Wheeler with FBI’s Columbia office says they are expecting those numbers to increase.

“Romance confidence scams are one of the top scams that we have with the most financial losses and so what we are trying to do is to educate people that these scams are out there. They are hoping you are lonely or looking for a relationship to take advantage of you,” Wheeler said.

Wheeler encourages people to be wary about connections made online

“They do this all day long. They know what information to look for they know what interests you. They will reach out and start off slow. They are getting to the heart of people,” he said.

Romance scams are often underreported because victims are embarrassed to come forward. Jackson encouraged people to file reports if they believe they have fallen victim and said time is crucial when it comes to recovering money.

Zahra hopes her story spares someone else financial loss and heartbreak.

“It has been the ultimate dive into self compassion. Having grace for myself and also having compassion for the people that have to do this for a job. Deceiving people everyday for your job. It has given me the opportunity to focus on a  growth mindset and I encourage anyone who finds them self in this situation to know that you can actively make choices to move forward.”

Zahra Hajiaghamohseni

Hajiaghamohseni’s case is open and Detective Jackson said they are working with federal investigators to track down missing funds and key players in the scam.