Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Online dating site used for blackmail by Winnipeg man

British women believed romantic overtures, Winnipegger threatened to reveal images

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A Winnipeg man tried to swindle thousands of dollars from two British teachers he convinced to send him nude photographs and videos through an online dating website.

Robert Li, 33, used the naughty material as the basis for his threats, claiming he would reveal them to the victims' schools and colleagues if they didn't meet his financial demands. It's one of the first cases of its kind exposed in Manitoba.

"It will take some money to make sure these videos never see the light of day," Li told one of his victims in an email exchange later seized by police.

Li -- who used a bogus last name on the Plenty of Fish website -- also spun an elaborate tale about his father being $150,000 in debt to Asian gangs who were after him if the payment couldn't be made quickly. He befriended the women quickly by claiming he was planning his own move to London in the near future.

Nothing could have been further from the truth. He was living in the basement of his parents' house, still smarting from being laid off at Investors Group. There was no gang debt, no angry mob after his family. Just a plot to make cash.

"I feel remorse for my actions. I've caused both ladies emotional pain and stress," Li said Friday at his sentencing hearing. He has pleaded guilty to a rare charge of extortion by libel. The Crown is seeking a six-month conditional jail sentence, while Li has asked for a suspended sentence with probation.

Provincial court Judge Carena Roller has reserved her decision until Dec. 13.

The two victims don't know each other and didn't realize they were both being manipulated over a week-long period around the same time in September 2011, court was told. Li turned otherwise tame conversations sexual by sending faceless photos that purported to show him naked. He then encouraged the two women to do the same.

"I started to trust Rob. He said he was moving to London and I started to see a future for us," one victim told police. She was coming off a nasty divorce and said she turned to Plenty of Fish to see if "men still found me attractive, and as a confidence boost."

Li certainly talked a good game, taking their conversations to other websites, such as Skype, which allowed video interaction. Only days after they first met online, a victim was suddenly performing a sexual striptease for him. She had no idea Li was recording the striptease to use it against her.

"I feel like an idiot. I never thought this would happen," she told police. "I thought this would be a personal video between the two of us."

Li initially told the woman he would meet her in London in the coming days, but then claimed gang members had attacked him because of his father's debt, stolen his passport and claimed more "blood would be shed" if he didn't come up with the cash quickly.

"Do you value your job?" Li suddenly asked the woman in an online chat. "Pretty sure the school wouldn't like videos of their teacher floating around on the Internet."

She said she didn't have the funds because of the costs of her ongoing divorce. Li told her to apply for a loan.

"You have an hour to decide before I send these to your school," he said.

The second victim had a similar encounter, sending Li photos of her in lingerie and fully nude in the belief they were private. Li quickly turned on her and demanded money, suggesting she sell her horse to get funds for him.

"I know where you work," he said in one chat. "You're going to regret that I have the pictures and the videos."

Both women went to police, who quickly linked the two incidents and contacted authorities in Winnipeg. Police arrested Li at his parents' house last December. He admitted to his crimes but denied ever planning to expose the women as he had threatened.

"There'll be no other incidents like this. I'm not a bad guy," Li said. Defence lawyer Sarah Inness said Friday her client has no prior criminal record and simply got "caught up" in a scam.

"He very much regrets what he did. It was out of character for him," she said.

Li has been free on bail since his arrest with conditions he have no contact with the women, avoid online dating websites and not use Skype. There has been no breaches, court was told.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 24, 2012 A4

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