Hopeful Charlotte Sharpe tried website Plenty of Fish to find a boyfriend – but the man of her dreams turned out to be a money-grabbing SHARK. Instead of life with an adoring partner, she ended up broke and suicidal. Tattooed male striper Mark Grace, 30, saddled her with crippling debts of almost £6,000 for phones and loans. At one point, she revealed, she was so low she wrote letters to her loved ones as she prepared to drown herself. But Charlotte, 26, fought back. She spent three years working hard to repay every penny he had cost her. When justice eventually caught up with Grace she discovered she was one of a series of victims he targeted through dating apps and social media And finally she had the satisfaction of watching as he was jailed for six years. “I was minutes away from ending it all when I came my senses,” she said. “I’d spiralled into a dark place.
“Thank God I survived to see him get his just desserts.” Hairdresser Charlotte met charmer Grace on the dating site in January 2014. “I was a sucker for tattoos,” she recalled. “I’ve got a few myself and he had loads. He even called himself Ink Boy on Plenty of Fish. “He was kind, confident and full of compliments. I soon found myself falling for him. “I had some health issues at the time and Mark came to hospital appointments with me. Then, when my grandad died, Mark helped ferry relatives home from the funeral. “I couldn’t have wished for a more caring and attentive boyfriend.” Even his revelation that he earned his living as a stripper didn’t put her off. “I was a bit taken aback at first, but he explained there was no sex involved and I told myself. ‘It’s just a job.’ “Everyone has to earn a living somehow. He was quite open about it.” But four months later Grace began stripping… her of cash. She said: “He told me he had a bad credit rating and needed a new phone so clients could call and book him. “He suggested I get myself a new handset at the same time, so I took out contracts for two new iPhones. “He promised he’d pay me each month to cover the fees going out of my account.” But Grace kept both phones – and within days was begging for a loan. “I told him straight. ‘No, I’ve just got two phones for you.’ He went on and on about it, pestering me for days to take out a loan for him. But I didn’t feel comfortable with it and told him so. “Then, about a week later, he just vanished off the face of the earth. “He blocked me on Facebook and Plenty of Fish. He refused to answer calls or texts. I never met his parents or went to his home. I didn’t know where he lived and had no way of reaching him.”
Soon Charlotte began to get letters in her name from two other mobile phone providers chasing payments. Grace had used her details to get more phones. And he’d also used them to borrow money from payday loan firms Wonga and Pounds to Pocket. She said: “I felt sick. Apparently I had an £800 loan from Pounds to Pocket but with interest I owed £1,700. “Meanwhile Wonga wanted more than £400. I’d never seen a single penny of this yet I was told I was behind with payments on both the loans. “I thought I’d end up in court, or lose everything to the bailiffs. I felt so foolish and embarrassed. I didn’t know which way to turn. “In the end I got a £500 overdraft to buy time while I worked out what to do next.” She called the police but they told her it was a civil matter. “I felt helpless,” she said. “I decided I’d have to just take it on the chin, knuckle down and pay the money. The phone contracts alone came to just under £200 a month, and I had loan repayments on top. “I was earning minimum wage in a salon and every spare penny I got went to paying the debts. “I did extra work in the evenings doing haircuts for friends and relatives to scrape by. I was in absolute despair, staring into the abyss.”
Then came her lowest moment: “I drove to the river and sobbed my heart out as I wrote letters to everyone I loved. I was going to take a handful of sleeping tablets, walk into the water and go to sleep. “I was sat on a bench beside the river, pills in my hand, when a friend of my gran’s chanced by. “She was chatting away, asking about my family, and it brought me to my senses. I realised if I went through with it, all I’d leave behind was pain and suffering – and all because of this idiot Mark Grace. “I ripped up the letters and later that day I confided in my mum.” Charlotte was helped by her local mental health team. And Citizens Advice put her in touch with the debt help charity Step Change. They created a debt management plan that reduced her repayments to affordable sums of between £100 and £200 a month. In February 2017, having met someone new and given birth to a baby girl, she finally paid off the £5808 debt . “The day I made my last payment I was dancing around the kitchen singing to my baby daughter, ‘Yay! Mummy’s paid the debts off!’ Then literally an hour later the phone rang. It was the police. “They said they were following up my complaint from 2014 about Mark Grace. “They had him in custody and wanted to take a statement. “I was gobsmacked and told them, ‘I wish you’d called sooner – like three years ago.’”
Grace, of Lowestoft, Suffolk, had been arrested after selling a laptop on eBay, pocketing £600 but failing to hand over the device. In total, his loan and credit cons had scammed three female and one male victim out of £40,000. And in December he was jailed at Norwich crown court for six years for four counts of fraud and one of theft. Charlotte, who now runs her own mobile hairdressing business in King’s Lynn, Norfolk said: “He’d met other girls through Tinder and Facebook, and conned them all just like me. He’d sell them any old sob story to get them to sign up for loans then vanish as soon as he got the cash.” Charlotte believes that without Step Change she wouldn’t have been alive to be in court and see Grace jailed. “They saved my life,” she said. “I want people to know that if you’re struggling with debt there’s help out there. Talk to someone. “I thought Mark and I had a future together but he’d played me for a total fool. Mark Grace pushed me to the edge but I came back stronger than ever. Now it’s his turn to pay.”