Alan Chalfant's only crime was messaging a pretty girl.
Chalfant, 29, joined the dating Web site PlentyofFish.com hoping to find a relationship. Instead, the Tacoma man was pulled into what he claims is an online extortion scam.
The ordeal began in June, when Chalfant messaged a user who purported to be a beautiful 20-something with auburn hair. She replied that she no longer wished to keep her account on the dating site and asked Chalfant to add her as a friend on Facebook.
On the social networking site, the two began to exchange flirtatious messages. The conversation turned sexual when the "girl" told Chalfant she was in Seattle, but planned to return to nursing school out-of-state in the coming months and wanted to be "friends with benefits."
The two made plans to meet in a public place.
"I mean, I'm not attached to anybody. I wasn't seeing anybody. I wasn't doing anything wrong," said Chalfant, who said he turned to online dating because of his busy schedule.
While Chalfant was eager to meet the woman, he said her messages abruptly stopped.
"No big deal," he thought. "Maybe a change of heart; maybe she met somebody else."
"I just didn't send anymore messages," he said.
It wasn't until Chalfant searched his name online, "just to see what's out there," that he found out how big of a deal it actually was.
"I did a Google image search and I see this thing that has my Facebook profile with my picture and it says, 'Is Alan Chalfant a liar, a cheater or a sex addict?'"
Online, for the world to see, was a screen shot of the conversation Chalfant had exchanged with the "pretty" girl on Facebook. It included his photo, his real name, his city, and his phone number.
His private conversation had been posted on a website called BaitMyMate.com.
"Absolutely anybody could look at it and see what I had said back and forth with this girl - this supposed girl," he said.
The site claims to offer "cheater investigative services," but also offers those who have been "busted" an opportunity to make the evidence disappear.
In his case, Chalfant was directed to contact the Website's "removal department" via email. In a series of correspondences that Chalfant provided to KIRO-FM, he is told that he can have the conversation removed for $99. He is even offered a payment plan of $39 a month for three months.
A man named "Steven" told Chalfant in an email that the woman he chatted with is an employee of BaitMyMate.
"Someone hired us to see how you would respond to flirtatious advances from a specific woman who is on our payroll," Steven wrote, despite the fact that Chalfant was the one who messaged the girl first. "Please let me know if you would like this all removed. We accept PayPal and credit cards."
Another member of the "removal department," who went only by Sara, assured Chalfant that the conversation would be removed within an hour if he paid the fee.
When Chalfant threatened to hire an attorney, yet another member of the "removal department," named Ashley, told him he had "no legal recourse."
"You can either waste time and money filing a court claim that is sure to go unsatisfied, or you can pay the $99 fee to have it all removed," she wrote.
"My first thought was, 'What's the legality of this? Can you actually do this to someone,'" he said. "I just don't see how that's legal."
An Internet search of "BaitMyMate" brings up dozens of private Facebook conversations similar to Chalfant's that were posted by the site. The site has "busted" men and women from Illinois, Florida, New Jersey, California, and Texas, among other states. In Washington, men from Lynnwood, Renton, and Tacoma have been "baited."
Chalfant is not the only one who claims to have been extorted by the site.
KIRO-FM contacted another man from Tacoma who shared a similar story. He said the site posted his private Facebook conversation then offered to take it down for a $99 fee.
The FBI's Computer Crimes Complaint Center (IC3) in Washington, D.C., agreed to search their database for similar cases.
"IC3 has received a small number of complaints that appear to be similar," said Jennifer Shearer, an FBI spokesperson. "People have reported that they have been on dating sites and they meet someone who is willing to engage in a racy conversation.
"The victim would receive an email from a third-party site that the victim had been revealed as a 'cheater' or a 'sex addict,'" she said.
Shearer said in those complaints, the victim was told that the post could be removed for a fee of $99.
While the Department of Justice said they are unable to comment on specific cases, federal law on interstate communication prohibits threatening a person's reputation with the intent to extort money.
Sec. 875. Interstate Communications (d) Whoever, with intent to extort from any person, firm, association, or corporation, any money or other thing of value, transmits in interstate or foreign commerce any communication containing any threat to injure the property or reputation of the addressee or of another or the reputation of a deceased person or any threat to accuse the addressee or any other person of a crime, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than two years, or both.
Chalfant sought the help of a local attorney, who was able to trace the site's host IP address to Panama. The domain name is registered through Florida-based Moniker Online Services. A Google Voice number listed for the site, 407-205-BAIT, has a Minnesota area code.
The man who claims to be the founder of BaitMyMate, Chase Barton, did not respond to multiple requests for comment via emails to the site. There is no record of Barton existing, besides a blog post which was deleted sometime Tuesday morning.
"I understand that there are people out there in this world that cheat on their wives; that cheat on their girlfriends," Chalfant said. "But it still doesn't make it OK for a site like this to extort people."
While Chalfant is concerned that it could jeopardize future relationships and job opportunities, he has not paid the company to remove his conversation. He said speaking about it publically could be "embarrassing," but he wants it to serve as a warning.
"I would just say be careful about who you message, who you talk to," he said. "Look out for red flags."
The FBI receives roughly 300,000 complaints annually from people who say they have been scammed online. If you believe you have been the victim of an online scam, file a complaint with IC3.
Requests for comment from Facebook and PlentyOfFish were not immediately returned.