Valentine's fraud: Canadians lose $17M to online love scams
"Baby, I just need $1,000 to pay this fine, and then I can get out of this nightmare."
"I don't know what I'll do if I can't find the $10,000 to cover the surgery."
"They're going to kick me out of my house if I can't come up with $500 more every month. Sweetie, can you save me?"
"I think it's finally time we meet, but I can't afford a ticket. If you send me the money, I'll pay you back?"
If any of these situations sound familiar, you or a loved one may be the victim of a romance scam.
Police are warning lonely hearts to be wary of online-only relationships this Valentine's Day, after Canadians lost approximately $17 million in romance scams last year.
Nearly 750 Canadians lost money to love scams in 2016, with some losing as much as $400,000 and declaring bankruptcy in pursuit of relationships engineered to leave them penniless. In most cases, the fraudsters posed as foreigners or Canadians working abroad and used high-pressure scenarios to elicit large payments from the victims.
Scammers will typically connect with victims through social media or an online dating site, and use fake photos and stories to win their trust. Eventually, after the victim has fallen in love, the scammer will say they need financial help to get out of a difficult situation.
"They're asking the victim to help them out," RCMP Sgt. Guy Paul Larocque told CTVNews.ca. "That emotion invested… is what makes it successful for the scammers."
The fraudster might claim they lost their luggage at the airport, and they'll ask for some quick cash to help them get home. "They'll show bank account statements to show they have the money to repay the victim, it's just they don't have access," Larocque said.
In other cases, the fraudster might say they need money to pay for a necessary surgery, to care for a dependent child, or to pay a fine.
Larocque says most of the money stolen through romance scams is never recovered, because victims are duped into making several payments over a long period of time. By the time they realize what has happened, there's no reversing the transfers they've made.
Larocque added that these scams are often executed by professionals based in other countries, who may also be working with organized crime. "They're doing that purposely to make it more difficult for law enforcement to be able to get to them," he said. "It is not somebody just playing behind the computer."
How to recognize a love scam
Larocque says emotions can often leave victims blind to their situation, until it's too late. However, there are certain signs that potential victims and their loved ones can watch for, to spot a scam before it does any damage.
For starters, Larocque says to be wary of any relationship that is based entirely online. "You don't truly know who's behind the computer until you meet that person," he said.
One should also be suspicious of anyone who professes their love before an in-person meeting.
He says scammers often claim to live in another country, or that they live near the victim but are working abroad. And, while it's certainly possible that a long-distance love might be legitimate, Larocque says to be particularly suspicious of those who claim to be engineers, security consultants or military officers stationed overseas.
Scammers have also been known to request that the victim cash a cheque for them, then send back a portion of the funds. In these cases, the cheque is counterfeit, and the unwitting victim winds up covering the fees from the bank.
Oftentimes it is a loved one who tips off police to a romance scam, because the victim is too emotionally invested to recognize the signs, Larocque said. Family members might become wise to the situation based on some change in the victim's behaviour, especially if they start to struggle with money, or if they ask for a loan.
"It will create tension within the family because the victim sometimes doesn't realize that there's a scam going on," he said.
He recommends listening for changes in the possible victim's relationship, and alerting police as quickly as possible if something seems off.
"Sometimes if a (money) transfer is being flagged fast enough, then it can be wired back to the account of the victim," he said.
Anyone who believes they or a loved one has been the victim of fraud should contact the RCMP's Canadian Anti-fraud Centre online or by phone at 1-888-495-8501.
And of course, one should always be cautious about looking for love online – especially if money is involved.
"When an offer is too good to be true, it probably is," he said.