Talk to many singles and they will likely tell you the same thing: it’s hard to make a romantic connection these days.
Between long hours at work and not being sure where to meet someone, new singledom can be a lonely place.
On the surface dating websites appear to be the answer. Anyone can go online, set up a profile and start surfing the web for someone interesting. You can flirt without the awkwardness of seeing someone face to face and if there is no love spark, you can hit delete and carry on. And there are plenty of success stories. Many of us know couples who met online and went on to have meaningful relationship.
But a joint W5-Toronto Star investigation found a sinister online world where crooks and conmen lurk, pretending to be lonely hearts but in reality are seeking to empty bank accounts, and quickly move on – jilting their victims.
When Rosanna Leeman went online she hoped that the Internet would help her find love and a new partner. After a failed marriage, the 48-year-old Ayr, Ontario resident was looking for her second chance at romance.
Rosanna joined the dating website ‘Match.com’ and met a man who called himself Marc Campbell. He said he was a widower and seemed nice and caring. Rosanna was smitten. Marc Campbell seemed the gentleman and possible soul mate she could spend her life with – and it appeared to be mutual.
Although they never met in person, Rosanna and Marc e-mailed and spoke on the phone for months. Marc said he was planning to move to Hamilton, Ontario from Florida and he wanted Rosanna to be part of his new life in Canada.
“I’ve gone through your profile so many times,” he wrote. “You sound exactly like a woman I would love to get along with. I still don’t know what I did to be so lucky to have you in my life. I would love to meet you in person.”
But before that could happen, Marc told Rosanna he had to take a business trip to Dubai. While there he claimed he had an emergency: he’d forgotten his wallet with all his money and identification in a taxi. Marc e-mailed Rosanna that he was getting help from the American consulate but, regardless, she offered to send money so that he could get by in the meantime.
At first Marc Campbell declined Rosanna’s offer but eventually he relented, promising to repay the money she advanced. Rosanna wired $7,000 via Western Union. It wasn’t until weeks later that she found out that it was all a con – her money had vanished along with Marc Campbell.
“I was mortified.” Rosanna told W5’s Sandie Rinaldo. “It was heart wrenching, it was absolute a pit in my stomach. I thought this can’t be happening” she said.
Rosanna Leeman is not alone. According to the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre, romance fraud is the number one scam in Canada in terms of dollars lost. Since 2010 Canadian victims have reported being ripped off for nearly $50-million.
This is how the scheme works: perpetrators target those looking for love online. They create a false identity and begin communicating on dating websites. Once trust is established, they ask their unsuspecting victims for money. They never meet in person.
Ellen, not her real name, agreed to share her story with W5 only if we concealed her identity. She has the unfortunate distinction of reporting to the Anti-Fraud Centre the largest amount of money lost to a romance scam in Canada.
Ellen told W5 that she met a man named Dave Field online through Match.com. What followed was an elaborate scheme that saw her send fraudsters more than one million dollars. But at the outset she was taken by his friendship.
“First of all he said he was a one woman man and he wanted me to stop communications on Match.com, but go to his e-mail,” recalled Ellen in an interview with W5.
Ellen planned to meet her friend in Los Angeles but within 24-hours of her booking a ticket, Dave responded that he was busy and couldn’t make the meeting. And then, he needed money. He was expecting a large inheritance but needed help and Ellen, believing she would eventually be repaid, began sending it.
“Well the fact of the matter is that it didn’t matter what I said, by way of obstruction or, or refusal, he worked his way around. And in the end, I was going to the bank and sending him the money” she said.
At first the amounts were small. But money transfer documents provided to W5, eventually showed hundreds of thousands of dollars being sent to Singapore, England, Spain and, eventually, Nigeria. In hindsight, Ellen says she doesn’t understand how she was conned into sending so much money. She believes that she may have been brainwashed.
“I felt like my mind was really in a fog and it only stopped when a male relative phoned me at the bitter end and said this is a scam. And suddenly I kind of woke up,” said Ellen. “But that was months down the road when the funds were depleted.”
Kim Polowek is a criminologist who teaches at the University of the Fraser Valley, in Abbotsford, British Columbia. Polowek is researching romance fraud and the schemes used by the perpetrators. She has found that there are many misconceptions and stereotypes about who romance fraud victims and warns that anyone can fall victim to these schemes, regardless of their socioeconomic status.
“Some of these victims are doctors, engineers, lawyers, business women, teachers and I think any one of us with the right kinds of persuasion, persuasive strategies utilized against us could be a victim,” she told W5 in an interview.
One of the techniques Polowek has identified is something she calls “love bombing” where victims are smothered with displays of affection, charm and flattery. And the scammers carefully tailor their e-mails to play to the victims’ values and interests.
“What are the things that make you tick, your kind of emotional passwords to your heart,” said Polowek. “I’m sure they keep detailed notes of the victims responses and they craft themselves into that ideal person.”
An ideal persona online that lowers victims defences and makes them vulnerable to send thousands of dollars to a fictitious character – someone they’ve never met. It’s a lesson Rosanna and Ellen learned the hard way.
“It’s easy to fall into the trap it really is” said Rosanna. “They say all the right things, they know how to win you over and it’s easy to fall for it.”
W5's report Cheatin' Hearts airs Saturday at 7 p.m. on CTV