‘I just want someone special in my life,’ I told my friends over a gin and tonic in the pub.
It was just weeks after my six-year marriage had ended, but I knew I would have to put myself out there again if I didn’t want to spend the next 40 years alone.
I had tied the knot at the age of 29 – it wasn’t a quick decision to say ‘I do’ and I really thought I had found the one.
But there was something missing and so by the time I was 35, I was single again.
I joined a few lesser known dating sites in November 2003 – I didn’t want the whole town to find out I was looking for love online.
I was searching for someone calming, trustworthy and who would let me be myself… and a handsome face wouldn’t go amiss!
After my two sons, then four and five, were in bed, I’d log on to see if there was anyone new online.
This particular Thursday evening I scrolled through and came across a guy named Jason, 40.
His profile said he was 5ft 11ins and a marketing manager – in his pictures, he was attractive, with salt-and-pepper stubble and kind eyes.
I took the plunge and messaged him.
‘Hi Jason – how are you?’ I typed, pressing send before I could change my mind.
Within 10 minutes he’d sent a reply.
‘Hi Samantha – that’s a great smile you’ve got there,’ he said.
A week later, in December 2003, I was walking in the door of the local pub to meet him – my first date in many years.
I stood at the crowded bar for a while looking for the man I’d spent six days getting to know.
There was a tap on my left shoulder and I turned around to face a guy that looked very-little like Jason.
He was about 5ft 6ins with grey hair and a tired face.
‘Hi Samantha, sorry I’m late – traffic was a nightmare,’ he said smiling. ‘What can I get you to drink?’
I stared at him dumbfounded – this was not what I was expecting.
‘You don’t look much like your profile,’ I smiled back in an attempt to hide my disappointment.
He laughed and said: ‘Everyone uses younger photos online, otherwise we’d never get a date!’
Within 45 minutes, I was back at home, sipping a strong-but-milky brew in front of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?
As Chris Tarrant offered the hopeful another question, I had plenty of my own: ‘Was it really a normal thing to lie online?’
‘Was I always going to be surprised by who turned up? And why wasn’t anyone talking about this?’ I pondered.
No one mentioned this rule when they told me to get back out there.
I spent a couple more years on the dating sites, this time scrutinising each and every profile.
The more profiles I went through, the more suspicious I became of certain signs.
‘If they’re posing in front of a Ferrari or an Aston Martin, I get suspicious,’ I said to my friend, Claire, over a coffee in the garden.
She was happily married, but loved hearing how my mind was working overtime to suss out the frauds.
‘Are they trying to tell me that this is their car and I should date them for their millions, or that this is what they aspire to, at the ripe age of 55?’ I mused.
‘You’re never going to meet someone if you’re this picky,’ she chuckled.
But she was wrong – because then I met Steve, now 62, in August 2005.
He was the director of an advertising company and was an easy going, honest man – with gorgeous dark hair.
And he made me see the positive side to looking for love online – there were real people sitting behind their computers, searching for real relationships.
On our first date we went for pizza, and half way through my Fiorentina, I knew I wanted to spend more time with him.
And so I quickly came off the dating sites – I definitely didn’t miss them, but I still worried about the women who might not be so lucky with their matches.
While working from home – as an online cosmetic retailer – my mind would often wander off to think what if I hadn’t been so lucky.
Conversations with my friend, Matt, a private investigator, would often centre around this subject.
‘I wish there was a service where men and women could hire people like you – to check if they’re being scammed,’ I said to him.
He nodded in agreement.
‘People would definitely use that – you were careful and would do your background checks before meeting anyone. Others don’t,’ he said. ‘You’ve got the right mindset for it – why don’t you do it?’
I mulled on those words until my boys were 15 and 16 – that age meant I had more time for myself.
I enrolled in a home study course in professional investigation in January 2014 – wherever I could grab an hour, Steve would find me studying at my computer.
Before long, I was assisting on jobs – my 9-5 involved tracing, background checks, and social media investigations into possible ‘catfishes’.
Discovering the truth would give me a rush – I’d be bouncing around the house for days afterwards.
But I knew I wanted to specialise in the dating industry – I wanted to help others avoid scenarios like that in Netflix’s Dirty John.
So in 2018 I put down the cosmetics and launched my own businesses – Private Investigations Limited and Rogue Daters.
I was inundated with requests from those who had lent money to their dates that are then reluctant to give it back – and who are probably not who they initially thought.
That’s our focus – not just running background checks on any guy or girl online.
Just after launching, I had a woman come to me.
You could tell she was besotted by her online lover, but was worried that she’d been the victim of romance fraud.
Her gentleman friend claimed he was a lawyer who had set up a charity to raise funds after an earthquake in the USA.
He seemed caring and considerate – quite literally, the dream.
She did a bit of work for him, but when it came round to being paid, he ghosted and blocked her.
Within a couple of searches, I found that he wasn’t a lawyer, he didn’t own a charity and he hadn’t given her his real name.
In fact, he was an illegal immigrant and a convicted paedophile.
Luckily she hadn’t handed over any cash yet, but there are plenty that have.
This year alone, I’ve helped 23 men and women that have been conned out of love and money online.
And while I can’t help everybody, there are a couple of signs that I’d warn everyone to watch for.
Firstly, if they very quickly ask you to move your chat off the app you met on, be a little wary – you can’t report anything to the app once you’re texting or emailing.
And if it gets too much too soon – for example, if they drop the ‘L’ bomb after four days – then maybe something’s not quite right.
Plus, show a friend who you’re talking to online – it’s good to have someone that isn’t emotionally involved check whether it all sounds and looks normal.
But also do have faith in finding love online.
I couldn’t be happier and everyone deserves that – except a conman!