Calgary

Bad romance: Scammers con $4.2M from Calgarians, say police

Calgarians have lost more than $4 million over the past four years to catphishers — who trick someone into a phony relationship for financial gain — and that's just in the 128 cases that were reported to police.

Most victims are women and the average age is 49

Since 2016, reported losses in Calgary due to catphishing have increased from thousands to millions of dollars, police say. (Mike Blake/Illustration/Reuters)

Valentine's Day is on Friday and the season of love can also mean romantic scams. 

According to police, over the past four years Calgarians have lost more than $4.2 million to romance scammers — and that's just the cases that have been reported.

In the 128 cases reported to the Calgary Police Service, a typical romance scam scenario begins online and they usually stick to email and text messages, according to a news release Thursday.

Catphishing — tricking someone into a phony relationship for financial gain — may start with scammers posing as someone else, either fake or mimicking a real person's identity, and convincing victims they're in a relationship.

From there, problems arise for the victim who is being catphished for their money, as well as for the person whose identity is being used by a catphisher.

"Romance scammers usually prey on emotions and trust to make victims believe they are in a legitimate relationship," says Sgt. Matt Frederiksen of CPS's fraud team.

"Once trust has been gained, scammers use a variety of tactics for financial gain, such as stories of hard luck or they may ask for money to travel to meet the victim in person. However, romance scammers almost never actually meet victims in person."

This leads to scammers requesting payment in the form of e-transfers, cheques or other methods — making it difficult for victims to get their money back as funds are usually sent to fraudsters who reside in different cities or countries.

Threats to victims

Frederiksen says police are starting to see cases where scammers make threats to victims in an attempt to make them pay.

"In some cases, scammers have threatened to leak private photos that were exchanged between them and the victim, or threats to 'out' someone who may be having an affair," he said.

The catphishing trend was first noticed in Calgary in 2016, when three cases were reported. Last year, there were 40.

Since receiving reports of romance scams in 2016, police have learned the tactics are constantly changing — which allows a broader range of potential victims, regardless of gender or age.

As well, the majority of victims in the past four years were women but approximately 26 per cent were men. Police say the average age for victims was 49. 

"We encourage citizens to be mindful of the information they are sharing with strangers as it can be anyone behind a computer screen," said Frederiksen.

Tips to avoid catphishers

  • Be diligent when dating online. Police say be cautious of online daters who try to move the relationship forward too quickly or say they cannot meet in person. Be especially cautious of people who ask for money as part of a hard luck story.
     
  • Protect personal and financial information. Do not give any personal or financial information to a stranger, police say. This includes bank account numbers, credit card numbers, birth dates and other personal information. Some romance scammers may try to use information for identity theft purposes, police say.
     
  • Talk to someone you trust. If you find yourself concerned about an online relationship, police recommend you talk to someone you trust such as a family member, friend or colleague. They can provide a more objective perspective that could reveal red flags, police say.
     
  • Report fraud to police. If you have lost money or have had your identity compromised by a romance scammer, report it to police. In Calgary, call the non-emergency line at 403-266-1234.

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