A CBC News Investigation has learned three Metro Vancouver women lost nearly a million dollars in online dating scams, and experts warn the true cost to victims nation-wide could be far higher than official estimates.

The number of Canadians being scammed has spiked from 47 official complaints just five years ago to more than 1,600 last year, according to the RCMP's Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre.

Victims reported losing a total of $16.7 million in 2012, but experts say the real figure could be 10 or 20 times that amount.

hi-bc-130214-online-dating-2-4col

Three romance scam victims who did come forward to tell their stories CBC News requested we hide their real identities. (CBC)

"I don't think it would be unrealistic to say we're in the hundreds of millions across Canada right now," estimates Const. Steve Wilson, of the Delta Police Department's economic and technical crime section

Wilson says police can track down the fraud artists — but only if they get a quick tip from a victim.

"In most cases what happens when victims come to us, the money is already gone and the chances of us recovering it are next to nil."

Looking for Mr. Right

Three romance scam victims who did come forward to tell their stories CBC News requested we hide their real identities with pseudonyms.

For Betty, Mr. Right couldn't have been more wrong.

She decided to try internet dating back in September and thought she met this man online: Alexander Richmond, a German civil engineer working in Malaysia who said he wanted to retire in Vancouver.

Signs someone is a victim of a romance scam

  • They are talking about a good friend or loved one in another country that is coming to visit or needs help.
  • They mention Western Union or MoneyGram.
  • They frequent the bank more often than normal,
  • They making unusual withdrawals both in amounts and frequency.
  • They are making large dollar wire transfers to countries in Africa, Asia or Eastern Europe

(Source: Canadian Anti Fraud Centre)

Richmond's emails quickly became romantic, and then he claimed his $4 million bank account — which Betty could see online — was tied-up by Malaysian red tape,

After asking Richmond to emailed proof of his identity, Betty agreed to pay the outstanding tax.

"I trusted him," Betty told CBC News.

But by December, Betty realized she'd been defrauded out of $180,000

"I was so disappointed, and I worried about my future, but it's all gone so forget it. I was so depressed for a while, for a month."

Another Lower Mainland woman told CBC News after she was taken for $200,000, she contemplated suicide.

"I wanted to kill myself," Isobel told CBC News.

And one other Lower Mainland woman told CBC News she lost half a million dollars to an on-line dating fraudster.

Warning signs for vulnerable valentines

B.C. Better Business Bureau spokesman Mark Fernandes fears people are especially vulnerable around Valentine Day.

"You have to watch out for tainted love, because it's the time of year when scamsters are looking for the opportunity," said Fernandes.

Experts say some warning signs of an online romance fraud include fast infatuation and quick declarations of love, attempts to lure you off dating website with personal emails and phone calls, followed shortly by requests for cash.

You can also check the photos provided by potential scammers against known stolen identities used by scammers, who are often based in Africa, on the anti-fraud website romancescam.com.

'You have to watch out for tainted love,'— B.C. Better Business Bureau spokesman Mark Fernandes

Williams also warns that some victims have fallen victim to scammers again, even after they realized they have been scammed.

"The fraudsters have in some cases been able to portray themselves as a member of the gang who has seen the light and has now truly fallen in love with the victim.

"Of course they now need the victim's financial assistance to escape their life of crime and come be with the victim forever. By this stage the victim has revealed so much of themselves to the fraudsters that it is easy for the fraudsters to further manipulate them.

But for victims like Betty all those warnings are too little and too late. She says she has lost more than her money — she's lost her faith in people.

"I learned a lesson – don't trust anybody," she told CBC News.