The Scourge of Romance Scams: or Looking For Love In All The Wrong Places

By Joyce Wayne

It’s no surprise that romance scams have proliferated in number and scope as Covid keeps us at home and in front of our computer screens. Recently, I attended a webinar, “Love Can Hurt More than Your Heart: How to Avoid Romance Scams,” sponsored by Elder Abuse Prevention Ontario. The speaker, Detective Constable Kristin Thomas, has been with the Toronto Police Services for 23 years. She is an experienced fraud investigator working in the Financial Crimes Unit, Corporate Crimes Section.

Constable Thomas is exactly the kind of serious, no-nonsense, devoted-to-her-job person you expect her to be. She describes what she terms “the explosion” of romance scams during Covid. In October 2021, she laid charges against individuals engaged in multiple romance frauds dating back to 2016. The victims who live across Canada, in Vancouver, Calgary, and the GTA, primarily were seniors: vulnerable widows or those divorced or never married.

According to Constable Thomas, the fraudsters’ scams play to the victims’ loneliness –and with one thing leading to another, they develop into romance. “Although the talk is about romance, the reason for the fraud is money,” says Thomas. People just like you and me, who sometimes find companionship on dating sites, Instagram, Facebook, WhatsApp, or other social media platforms, are targeted by sophisticated scammers often working in groups that launder money or participate in other nefarious financial schemes.

How to avoid traps

To avoid falling into the elaborate traps set by these predators, Thomas suggests being extra careful about what you post online or how you word your profile. Predators look for the following personal identifiers:

  • Date of birth
  • Home address
  • Announcements of family celebrations
  • Photographs of your house with the address
  • Joining online reading groups
  • Joining online widows’ groups

Even something, for instance, as innocent as “Hi Dorothy, happy birthday with pictures of you walking your dog or at the dog park,” says Thomas can trigger a response from a predator. The responses you receive that can be dangerous are those that suggest that you and he have “lots in common,” that they “live in the same city, but at the moment are overseas, travelling or on an oil rig. Usually, the predator is away for months at a time.”

Most victims never even meet their predator face to face. He, and it’s almost always a male, only sends a photograph along with an enormous number of emails and text messages. Predators shower their victims with attention by connecting every single day. Thomas says, messages such as “I loved talking to you for two hours last night,” are common. One of the most common fraud alerts is that the predator wishes to talk two to three times per day for two to three months, after which there is a pivot. At this point, the predator complains of an unexpected trauma: an accident, illness needing hospitalization or another unforeseen problem. This is when he asks for money, saying he needs the funds immediately, that his funds are tied up, and the victim should not tell anyone about the funds’ transfer. During Covid, illness is a common reason why the fraudster needs help. Thomas talks about one victim who lost more than $1 million this way.

Protecting Yourself

If you think you are being scammed, Thomas suggests getting support from friends, family, or your doctor. “Don’t feel shame or guilt,” she cautions. “Call your financial institution and alert them to the issue.” Thomas adds, “Don’t go through this alone. You need to report the fraudster to the police. It is the only way to stop predators and help ensure no one else will suffer.”

For additional resources on how to spot and prevent common scams, watch the Catch the Scam video series with the world-renowned former fraudster Frank W. Abagnale who partnered with HomeEquity Bank. There’s an informative video on the romance scam which goes into detail on how fraudsters prey on your emotions.

If you are feeling alone and isolated these days, it’s easy to search for friends online and relish their attention. Although it might seem harmless, it’s essential to look for the signs of fraud that Constable Thomas describes and learn how to quickly recognize these signs and reach out for help. For more information visit: www.canadiancrimestoppers.ca or call Seniors’ Crime Stoppers at 1-800- 222-TIPS.

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