A CBC News investigation has uncovered an international dating scam that stretches from Vancouver across the Atlantic to London, England.

The scam targeted a middle-aged gay man, duping him out of half a million dollars. 

"I never dreamed it could happen to me, but I guess it could happen to anyone," said "Tony", whose identity CBC News has disguised to protect his career and family.

"How could I be so stupid to fall in the trap?"

CBC News went online and posed as a middle-aged woman looking for romance. To see the results of our experiment, see our video.

Tony was looking for love online. He didn't like going to bars, and it was very difficult for him to find companionship, so he joined a dating site. 

Tony met a man who claimed he was from England. This man suggested they stop communicating via the dating site and use Yahoo Messenger instead.

Their romance blossomed over six weeks, after which Tony's new-found partner told him he had to go to Asia for business.

While supposedly on business in Malaysia, Tony's boyfriend claimed corrupt local officials had frozen his asset and were demanding bribes.

He asked Tony for several loans that eventually totalled half a million dollars. Tony even cashed in his retirement savings, before he realized he'd been had.

"Love is a very powerful, even though it’s fake," he said. "Love can make you do anything."

International network of criminals

Career con men are "on the verge of sociopaths," said Det. Mark Fenton with the Vancouver Police Department Technological Crime Unit.

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"They have no empathy at all for the victim ... They don’t care that person might be facing bankruptcy. They don’t care that this person might be thinking of committing suicide because of all the money that they’ve lost."

Fenton says it can be extremely difficult to go after this international network of criminals.

"We will have one cell that's operating in Africa, another cell that might be operating in Europe, we have a third cell that's operating in Asia — so trying to go after these individuals is very frustrating."

He adds that global laws are antiquated and this type of cross-border cybercrime is moving at a pace that far outstrips what any legislation can hope to accomplish.  

Fenton believes a possible solution would be the creation of a global response team that would be able to respond quickly to these types of online fraud.

Tony fights back

Tony hired a private investigation firm in London to find out where he was sending his money, and who was behind the elaborate scam.

"I never dreamed it could happen to me, but I guess it could happen to anyone. How could I be so stupid to fall in the trap?"- "Tony"

The private investigators traced the scammers to two men linked to a company  on the outskirts of London.  They are part of an elaborate ring that likely extends to Africa and Malaysia, using fake identities to prey on those looking for love.

CBC News encouraged Tony to contact VPD about the scam, and local police have been in contact with British police who are continuing their investigation.  

Earlier this month, an arrest was made and one of those men could soon face charges

For Tony, the arrest is bitter-sweet. He doesn’t expect to see a penny of his half-million dollars.

"If your date is asking for money, you just stop it," he said. "If it’s too good to be true, then it’s not true. That’s what I learned."

The following are the number of Canadian romance scams reported to the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre (CAFC).

The CAFC says the vast majority of romance scams go unreported.

Complaints Victims Dollar loss
2013 1167 744 $9,547,672.73
2012 1649 1191 $16,576,186.74
2011 1358 935 $11,771,434.99
2010 914 624 $6,836,801.51
2009 566 375 $3,272,330.06
2008 50 43 $632,731.45

*Stats collected up until Sept. 9, 2013.

Tips on protecting yourself

  • Suspects like to lure victims off the dating site, where a monitor may catch suspicious activity, and onto instant messaging and webcam chats.
  • Suspects request funds through bank wire transfers, Western Union and Money Gram.
  • If you’re suspicious, searching the internet for identical stories as those being used by scammers is a good technique to protect yourself. A small amount of due diligence by the victims could expose the scam long before any money is lost.
  • The scammers have studied your online profile and know how to play the role of the perfect soul-mate. They will profess their love quickly and will make it difficult for you to focus on what they are up to, scamming you.
  • If it’s too good to be true, it probably is.
  • The Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre recommends you contact them before sending money to anyone you meet online.
  • The chance of recovering any lost money is slim at best, but it’s still important to report the scam to the local police and the CAFC.

Source: Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre (CAFC)

With files from the CBC's Eric Rankin and Enza Uda