Police Warning People to Beware of Devastating Romance Scams

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With online dating becoming more common—and with Valentine's Day having dominated the media landscape all week—a lot of people are likely going online to look for love.

But while trying out dating sites is never a bad idea, there are some prevalent—and devastating—romance scams that police are warning the public to be aware of.

The Ontario Provincial Police and the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre (CAFC) recently reminded people that in 2017, Canadian victims lost over $17 million to scammers pretending to be in love.

For those who are unaware, a romance scam typically involves a person engaging in a fraudulent romantic relationship with an unwitting victim for financial gain. Often, an individual will connect with the victim (usually online) and work to gain his or her (victims are disproportionately females over the age of 50) trust and affection for the purpose of obtaining money or access to bank accounts or credit cards.

In some more serious cases, the suspect will attempt to get the victim to commit fraud on their behalf, sometimes as a money mule who accepts and then transfers money or goods.

Most romance scams begin via social media or online dating sites and it's not unusual for the suspect to never meet the victim face to face. In most cases, the entire relationship is cultivated and carried out over the internet. To be clear, this isn't the same as catfishing (where someone pretends to be someone they are not online), as this type of suspect is almost always seeking money or other assistance.

It's not uncommon for this person, after a few weeks of "dating," to suddenly profess his or her love and then ask for money—sometimes a lot of it—because of an "emergency." Some victims have been asked for money to pay for costly medical bills following "accidents" or "illnesses." Others have been asked to bail the suspect out of jail for a crime he/she didn't commit or help him or her afford a costly but necessary home or car repair.

These scams have bilked some victims out of thousands of dollars.

So, how can you protect yourself or a loved one?

The OPP have the following tips:

  • 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 after a few emails?
  • Be wary when someone you meet on social media wants to quickly move to a private mode of communication (email, text).
  • If trying to set up an in-person meeting, be suspicious if they always have an excuse not to meet. If you do actually set up a meeting - tell family and friends when and where you’re going and meet in a local, public place.
  • Do not share personal (birthdate, address) or financial information with anyone you have only just met online or in person.
  • Never send intimate photos or videos of yourself. The scammer may try to use these to blackmail you into sending money.
  • Be cautious when conversing with an individual that claims to live close to you but is 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 agree 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.

If you meet someone online, here's how to spot red flags:

  • 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.

How should you respond if you believe you're a victim?

If you did send money or share financial information, report it to your bank or the financial institution/company you used (PayPal, MoneyGram, etc).

  • Gather all information pertaining to the situation, including the scammer’s profile name, how you made contact, social media screenshots, emails, etc. and contact your local police service.
  • File a report with the CAFC toll-free at: 1-888-495-8501 or online www.antifraudcentre.ca.
  • Notify the dating website or social media site where you met the scammer. Scammers usually have more than one account. Be pro-active, tell family, friends, coworkers and neighbours about your experience to warn them about romance scams.
  • The typical victim is between 50-59 years of age and 60% are women. They meet the fraudster through social networking or an online forum. In 2017, 1066 scams were reported and it is estimated that only five per cent of all victims report this crime.

Police say they strongly suggest victims report the incident for the following reasons:

  • If you’ve sent money or transferred money or goods on behalf of a scammer, the police and financial institutions need to be aware in order to properly investigate, recover stolen funds and/or goods if possible, and work towards preventing further criminal activity.
  • Reporting romance scams helps fraud authorities to warn other people about current scams, monitor trends, and disrupt scams where possible.

In the end, it's best to practice common sense. It's unlikely that a man or woman who has never met you is in love with you. Instant requests for money are almost always suspicious and if something sounds too good to be true, it often is.

And if you do fall victim to a scam like this, do not let shame or embarrassment stop you from reporting the incident to the proper authorities.

Your actions could prevent another person’s heartache.

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