Romance scams: 5 things you might not know

Every day, millions of people around the world go online looking for love. Whether it's on dating apps or social media platforms, people meet and fall in love online all the time.

Unfortunately, there are fraudsters out there looking to take advantage of people through scams that begin online. In many of these cases the fraudsters pretend to fall in love with someone over the Internet, and then take advantage of them, exploiting their trust and often defrauding them of their hard-earned dollars.

The Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre has warned that romance scams are on the rise in Canada. Here are some things you should know about this kind of fraud to help protect yourself and your loved ones:

Fraudsters are very skilled at building trust

Depending on the nature of the scam, and the potential financial payoff, romance scammers may spend weeks, months or even years building a relationship with their victims. Sometimes these relationships are built over phone and text messages, by sending photos and gifts, and by going to great lengths to earn their target's trust.

In one recent case1 reported by the RCMP's Financial Crimes Unit, a victim was slowly convinced over a seven year online 'relationship' to drain her personal savings, and it was only when she had nothing left that her 'suitor' disappeared.

READ: Fraud prevention: Too good to be true offers usually are

Romance scams aren't just for dating sites

When you hear 'romance scam' you might automatically think of dating sites. While it's true that romance scammers may lurk there, any social channel where people share information and make connections can be a destination for fraudsters. Guard your personal information and be selective about what you post online to help prevent yourself from being targeted.

It can happen to anyone

It's true that seniors are often the target of sophisticated online scammers, but anyone can become the target of a romance scam, particularly those who may be lonely or vulnerable, and that's what these fraudsters are trained to look for.

According to the Canadian Internet Registration Authority (CIRA)2, 74 percent of Canadians spend at least 3-4 hours online per day, with social media usage ranking as the third most popular online activity. Increased online time has been correlated3 to increased feelings of isolation, making many Canadians easy targets for fraudsters.

It ain't over till it's over

Being defrauded is an awful experience for the victim, particularly when it feels like a romantic betrayal.  Unfortunately, realizing you were scammed by an online suitor may not be the end of it. There have been cases where the fraudster re-targets the same victim by posing as law enforcement and promising to help the victim recover some of their stolen money. In other cases, the fraudster gets back in touch with their victim and apologizes for tricking them, and then tries to regain trust by claiming they developed genuine feelings.

The bottom line: if you've been victimized, cut off all contact and don't re-engage. It could make things go from bad to worse.

Romance scams are a big problem – but we don't know just how big

In 2017, Canadians reported losing $17.6-million to romance scams – and while that's a big number, the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre estimates only about 5 per cent of victims report being defrauded4, citing embarrassment and shame at being tricked as reasons for not reporting fraud. That means the real number could be much, much higher.

READ: Fraud-ucation: Is your smartphone your friend or foe?

There are usually red flags and warning signs to look for.  Share these tips to help prevent your family and friends from being scammed:  

  • Be wary - If someone professes their love very quickly and/or consistently avoids any opportunity to meet in-person, you should be extremely cautious.
  • Don’t trust strangers who ask for personal information or money.
  • Understand that once you've sent money, you may not be able to get it back. Be aware that certain types of funds transfers, like wire transfers or e-Transfers, may not be able to be cancelled or retrieved. 
  • Be aware of the common elements of romance scams - the fraudsters' cover stories are typically similar – they are engineers or military personnel stationed overseas, they have lost a spouse and have a young child.  If you search 'romance scam' online, you will find many examples of what to look for.

What can you do if you've been scammed?

  • Report it - If you believe you've been a victim of a romance scam, the RCMP recommends you contact your bank and place a stop payment on any cheque or cancel an electronic money transfer if it hasn't been deposited, report the incident to your local police and file a report with the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre.
  • Learn more and help others - The Government of Canada Competition Bureau's "The Little Black Book of Scams" is a free download that can help you learn more about some of the most prevalent scams currently employed across Canada.
  • Talk about it – While you may feel embarrassed, you are definitely not the first person who's been tricked by this nasty type of scam. Sharing your story can help others avoid being scammed.

1 https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/online-fraud-450000-1.4025651 

2 https://canadiansinternet.com/2018-social-media-use-canada/ 

3 https://www.ajpmonline.org/article/S0749-3797(17)30016-8/fulltext 

4 http://www.competitionbureau.gc.ca/eic/site/cb-bc.nsf/eng/04334.html