SPLASHING around in the ocean with her five-year-old son on a family holiday in Tunisia, the last thing Sarah Phillips expected was to find romance with a tall, dark and handsome stranger.
So when an off-duty hotel entertainer made a beeline for her one evening, she couldn’t believe her luck.
Sarah, 33, instantly fell for the charms of Haithem Ben Mohammed and quickly became inseparable from the 22-year-old.
But while she was falling for her “dream man”, Sarah had no idea the nightmare which was about to unfold.
Soon she would find herself pregnant, penniless and stuck in an unhappy marriage – before eventually being unceremoniously dumped by scammer Haithem for another woman.
Sarah stars in a new Channel 5 documentary, Holiday Love Cheat, which follows a group of British women who lost everything after falling for con men on holiday.
‘He was my dream man’
Almost as soon as Sarah returned to the UK with her son Frankie, Haithem started bombarding her with calls and texts.
Just weeks later he proposed – and she accepted.
“I think every girls dream is to find that special guy and get married,” she recalls. “I just felt special and wanted.”
Although she initially suggested they wed the following year when they knew each other better, Haithem was insistent.
He wanted to tie the knot on his birthday in November – even though the couple had only met in Tunisia in May.
Believing his explanation that a wedding would make his birthday even more special, Sarah was talked round and quickly began planning.
“I saved every penny I could get for the wedding,” she recalls.
They tied the knot on November 11 with Haitham constantly telling Sarah that he loved her and even suggesting she moved to Tunisia to be with him.
“He always reassured me that he wasn’t after me for visa,” she recalls.
‘We were forced to use food banks’
When Sarah was diagnosed with a kidney problem, the pair decided Haitham would move to the UK because his visa application could be fast-tracked on the basis he’d be able to care for her.
“I did all I could raising any type of funds,” Sarah admits. “The wedding, the visa, flights that totalled £6,000 – being a single mum that’s a lot of money.
“I think deep down I was hoping it was going to be rejected even though it was money that I saved and worked so hard for… I was worried about rushing him over to be in my space when I had been used to being single.”
Haitham moved to the UK at the end of March and things were immediately difficult.
With no money left, the couple had to rely on food banks – and Sarah quickly realised her new husband wasn’t interested in working.
“I found him a labouring job and every time he came home, he’d moan the work was too hard and he had hurt his hand,” she said.
A secret love rat
Just three weeks in, Haitham did a runner.
Furious Sarah lit a “revenge bonfire” to burn all his stuff.
Those feelings didn’t last long though, as three months later Haitham turned up on her doorstep because his visa was cancelled… and Sarah made the bizarre decision to give him another go.
“We tried over the next few months to make things work – then I fell pregnant,” she explained. “I didn’t mean to, I was on protection.”
The pregnancy did nothing to bring the pair closer, with their rows continuing.
Eventually Haitham, who had applied for a visa extension, left, and he’s now living in Kent.
“I’m much happier now,” Sarah said.
“Me and my son and daughter. It’s much better this way.”
Pressured into marriage
According to the national fraud intelligence bureau, romance scam victims lose over £11,000 on average.
One woman determined to fight back is Michelle Newton from Norwich, who is still counting the cost after being conned by a holiday love rat diving instructor in Dubai.
“Whaleed was very passionate,” she recalls. “I would say that he actually reels you in.”
Michelle fell in love, they got engaged and she took him to the UK on a fiance visa, which meant they only had six-months to marry.
Michelle Newton from Norwich with love rat husband Whaleed, who she met on holiday in Dubai
“I would’ve liked to have waited longer, but the immigration system was pressuring me to marry him,” she says.
The coupled tied the knot, with Michelle also paying for Whaleed to do a diving qualification in the UK.
She saw it as an investment in their future, but as soon as her new husband’s British passport arrived she realised how mistaken she’d been.
“He received his British passport on the December 5, by the 31st of December he was booking tickets to leave the UK,” she said.
“As soon as he got what he wanted, he was out.”
‘He called me The Banker’
Whaleed left a string of debts and Michelle had to deal with visits from baliffs.
The pair eventually divorced and the experience has made Michelle a fervent campaigner for laws to help prevent marriage fraud.
She set up the Stop UK marriage support group and hears from thousands of women who’ve been through similar ordeals every year.
She said: “These men actually groom us and intimidate the women. Friends and family will be in on the scam.
“There’s no guilt on their part. My ex-husband use to call me ‘banker Michelle.’
“I started this group up to help victims and that basically saved me.
“We’ve been ridiculed by people calling us stupid.
“But people don’t know until they’ve been through it.”
‘My friends tried to warn me’
Dianne Peebles continues to be troubled by her experience.
She was on holiday in Sri Lanka when a young hotel worker and tut tut driver called Priyanjana caught her eye.
“I thought he was a very nice young man and he was very polite,” says Dianne.
“He asked me for my mobile number and then he asked me for my address and I didn’t think anything of it.”
Despite the 33-year age gap, Dianne, 54, lapped up the 21-year-old’s attention.
“When I got back home he tried to call me, but his English wasn’t that good,” she says.
“He wrote me a few letters and from January 2012 we were texting each other and then had a conversation on the phone and he mentioned marriage, and I was a bit taken aback.”
A few months later, Dianne – who had never been married – returned to Sri Lanka to see her toy-boy.
He was delighted to see her and kept saying “tomorrow engagement”, with Dianne thinking they needed to log their intent to marry at the registrar’s office because she was from another country.
In fact, she took part in her own wedding ceremony at the office.
“She started reciting, ‘Do you take…,’” Dianne recalls.
“I was kind of shocked at first, but he was urging me to go ahead and just say it.”
The pair were married, with Dianne insisting her new husband was “attentive, romantic and loving” to begin with.
Keen to help her young husband, Dianne sold her flat for £100,000 so they could start building a home in Sri Lanka.
Priyanjanka also wanted to upgrade his tut tut to a minibus, but when Dianne eventually joined him in Sri Lanka everything fell apart.
“He spent more time at his mum’s than he did with me,” she said. “Or he’d go out with his friends at night and not come home.
“It just wasn’t working out. We spent a lot of time arguing about money. I realised it was a sham.”
‘My friends warned me’
Things came to a head in January 2016 when Dianne met another woman who claimed she was also married to Priyanjana.
“I felt betrayed because I thought he really loved me,” she admits.
“Obviously the marriage wasn’t going to work because of the age gap. His mother was four years younger than me his father, two years older.
“My friends tried to tell me and I didn’t listen to anyone.”
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But just as Diane thought she had hit rock-bottom, things got worse.
After the sale of the Scottish flat people in Sri Lanka realised they had money, making them a target for local gangs.
Then came the terrible news that Priyanjana was murdered.
As well as the shock, Dianne found herself stranded in Sri Lanka as everything she’d paid for – including the home and minibus – were in her husband’s name.
It took her two years to get enough money together to move home – but she remains £100k out of pocket.
“I feel sad I gave up my life,” she said.