Most people want to find love and happiness, and in a digital world that can mean turning to online dating. However, that can also open the door to scammers hoping to prey on people’s emotions.
In 2018, Edmonton police investigated 11 incidents of romance scams, in which $1,115,219 was reportedly conned out of victims. It’s a huge increase over 2017, when police said 10 scams resulted in a loss of $396,698.
The victims said they were scammed via six different dating websites, along with Facebook and professional networking site LinkedIn.
Edmonton police said fraudsters are putting a lot of effort into their romance scams. Some build trust with their victim by meeting in person and even going to the extent of moving in together. Police said once trust is established, scammers ask for financial assistance.
Con was one of the victims who approached Edmonton police. He agreed to share his story in hopes others wouldn’t fall victim to a similar crime. He asked that his last name not be published.
Con was in the hospital when he received a message from a woman named Deborah who had seen his dating profile, and police said Con was happy to have the company while he was confined to the hospital bed.
The scammer claimed to be a U.S. citizen on an overseas contract as a computer civil engineer, and a single mom to a nine-year-old son.
Over the course of about a year, Con was scammed out of more than $100,000, police said.
At first, officers said it was a request for $600 to help fix Deborah’s broken phone camera. When Con said no, the scammer stopped talking to him.
Months later they started talking again, and “Deborah” asked for money again, saying she was relying on Con to get her and her son back to the U.S. He gave what he could toward a new phone — $100 — but it wasn’t enough and she stopped talking to him again.
Police said nearly a year later, she asked Con if he still loved her and they resumed talking for a couple of weeks before she claimed to be laid off and needed help.
He told her to go to the U.S. embassy, but “Deborah” said she was working under an illegal contract. She needed to get home, but was $1,500 short. The next day, she said ticket prices went up and he paid the difference.
Then, requests for help with medical bills began. Deborah said her son was diagnosed with malaria, then they were in a collision – police said she even sent x-rays.
The scammer claimed they had money back home but couldn’t access it overseas, and promised to pay Con back — even claiming to prove their financial status by sending a picture of American bank accounts.
The scammers sent photos and an image of a fake passport, police said.
Eventually, Con clued in that there was no Deborah — just a network of scammers manipulating his emotions.
“I didn’t know what to feel at the time,” he said. “It still bothers me — the depth of the lies. They don’t give a damn who they hurt. Just… literally do not care.”
Police said sadly, Con’s dream of having a family was used against him by the fraudster.
When one of his banks interfered and the Edmonton police investigated, the romance scam totalled $143,000.
When asked why he sent the money, Con said he hoped his dream of having a family would come true.
“I’ve been single all my life. I’ve met a few women that had kids, but to have someone promise that they’re going to give you that — that is the really tough part. And then they pretty well stick a knife in you.”
Con put aside his embarrassment and shared his story in hopes of preventing other people from falling for the same scam.
“If I can help anybody to not get caught like I did, then it’s damn well worth it.
“The money part is tough, but the emotional part is really hard,” he said, adding he is at risk of losing his home or declaring bankruptcy in the next five years.
Edmonton police said it’s important to remember romance scammers do this for a living.
“It’s absolutely heartbreaking that these scammers are taking someone’s desire for happiness and using it against them,” Det. Linda Herczeg said. “They commit all of their time into these scams because it’s their job and it’s lucrative.”
The full list of websites identified by victims is below:
- BigChurch.com – online dating and relationships for Christian singles
- DatingForSeniors.com – seniors dating site
- EliteSingles.ca – online dating site
- Match.com – online dating site
- Single to Mingle – online dating app
- Shaddi.com – Indian marriage/matchmaking service
- LinkedIn – professional networking for business and employment-oriented services
Edmonton police said if you or someone you care about is going to venture into the world of online dating, consider the following tips to stay safe:
- Be suspicious when someone you haven’t met in person professes their love to you. Ask yourself: would someone I’ve never met really declare their love after only a few emails?
- Be wary when someone you meet on social media wants to quickly move to a private mode of communication like email and text
- If trying to set up an in-person meeting, be suspicious if they always have an excuse to not meet
- Do not share personal (birth date, address) or financial information with anyone you’ve only just met online or in person
- Never send intimate photos or video of yourself. The scammer may try to use these to blackmail you into sending money
- Be cautious when talking to people claiming to live close to you but are working overseas
- Never send money for any reason. The scammer will make it seem like an emergency, they may even express distress or anger to make you feel guilty, but do not send money
- Should you be asked to accept money (e-transfer, cheque) or goods (usually electronics) for you to then transfer/send elsewhere, do not accept to do so. This is usually a form of money laundering which is a criminal offence
- If you suspect a loved one may be a victim of a romance scam — based on any of the above points — explain the concerns and risks to them and help them get out of the situation
- Do an image search of the admirer to see if their photo has been taken from a stock photo site or someone else’s online profile
- Look for inconsistencies in their online profile vs. what they tell you
- Watch for poorly written, vague messages, sometimes even addressing you by the wrong name — often scammers are working several victims at once
- If you have transferred money, stop the transaction if possible
- If you did send money or share financial information, report it to the financial institution used e.g. your bank, Western Union, MoneyGram, Equifax and TransUnion
- Gather all information on the situation —including the scammer’s profile name, how you made contact, social media screenshots, emails, etc. — and contact your local police
- File a report with the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre: 1-888-495-8501 or online
- Notify the dating website or social media site where you met the scammer. Scammers usually have more than one account
- Be proactive; tell family, friends, coworkers and neighbours about your experience to warn them about romance scams
Online dating safety tips
When it’s online
- At the beginning, keep the personal details that you share to a minimum
- Don’t use your real name as your username
- Don’t reveal details about where you live, work, or places you’ll be going
- Message over the app or website instead of giving out your personal phone number
- Do not share images if you don’t feel comfortable with them being public
- Ask them about photos they previously sent you for more details/context. See if they can remember what they told you previously
- Remember that people are not always who they say are. If you are suspicious of someone report them to the app or website
- Do not feel pressured to meet someone if you aren’t comfortable
- Look in to a person’s online presence. If they have other social media accounts, be sure the details of these accounts match up with what they have told you about themselves
- Ask yourself questions – do they have the social media presence you would expect?
When/if you decide to meet someone
- Be clear about your expectations and ensure that you are both on the same page
- Meet in public, stay in public
- Do not meet for the first time at the person’s home, or invite the person to your home
- Meet at the public location instead of accepting a ride from the person you are meeting
- Tell someone you trust where you are going and who you are meeting
- If you become uncomfortable with the date or the person, leave
- Always trust your gut