Police and anti-fraud agencies are warning about the increasing numbers of scammers using online dating sites as their main targets.
As dating websites become more popular, more people are starting legitimate relationships that way. A recent survey by the site eHarmony shows as much as a third of Americans married since 2005 had met online.
However, criminals are also finding more potential targets — posing under a fake identity and trying to earn trust before asking for money.
Once it’s gone, money can be extremely hard to get back, according to Staff Sgt. Stephanie Burns of the Ottawa police anti-fraud section.
"The computer is a wonderful place for people to hide, so it's very difficult for us to do the investigation if funds are sent out of the country," she said.
"Then it’s an international investigation … it becomes extremely hard for us to get the correct documentation."
Organized crime is involved
The Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre said Canadians lost $17 million to online dating fraud in 2012.
Over the last three years, they said Canadians have lost more money to these scams than any other kind of fraud, despite the number of victims barely registering in the top 10 when compared to other kinds.
Daniel Williams of the anti-fraud centre said this is because organized crime can take on such fraud on a massive scale.
"It's a big gang. They're doing the same thing to many people at the same time," he said.
Williams said this means groups can go after small sums of money, as little as $40, but they have the capability to go after as much as tens of thousands of dollars.
They do this by taking on a persona shaped to what a potential victim says they’re looking for, along with waiting as many as nine to 10 months before bringing up money.
They will even arrange to meet in person if the reward is high enough, Williams added.
"They can afford to have the money come in many months later because there's a stream of money coming in all the time," said Williams.
Hundreds in Ontario and Quebec report fraud
CBC News has heard from a few victims of such fraud, including an Ottawa woman in 2010 who lost $20,000 to a man who started out by asking her for loans, then moved on to opening credit card accounts in her name.
While that man eventually went to jail, the victim's money was gone for good.
The anti-fraud centre said 269 Ontarians have reported online dating fraud so far this year, with 177 losing some money. That means 92 people caught on to the fraud before they lost anything.
In Quebec, 471 people have reported such fraud in 2013 — 319 of who were victims.
Warning flags for potential online dating fraud
Burns said one type of fraudster is someone who raises warning flags right away.
"If you can't get that person to meet face to face, if you start to get excuses as to why that can't happen, I think that should be a bit of a red flag," she said.
"If the person starts talking about money issues inappropriately early in the relationship, I think that should be an indicator perhaps this person’s motives aren't what yours are."
Signs you're a victim of a romance scam
- They talk about a good friend or loved one in another country who is coming to visit or needs help.
- They mention Western Union or MoneyGram.
- They frequent the bank more often than normal.
- They make unusual withdrawals in amounts and frequency.
- They are making large-dollar wire transfers to countries in Africa, Asia or Eastern Europe.
(Source: Canadian Anti Fraud Centre)
Williams said in the case of more organized fraudsters, you can search the Internet for snippets of their messages to you since they often use templates (an example of this is RomanceScam.com).
That way, you can tip yourself off if someone has come across that person or group before.
Scammers can also use generic images found online as their profile pictures, another aspect that can be uncovered in a search.
If you do become a victim, both police and anti-fraud agencies said to not be too embarrassed to report it. Williams said his figures show between one and five per cent of fraud victims on online dating sites tell police about what happened.
"Consumers who call us after being victimized in these scams … the money they’ve lost, even when it’s in the tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars, pales in comparison to the emotional devastation they’ve gone through," he said.
"They put all their faith in this true love and it turns out to be a scam to steal money from them."