Saskatoon woman says 'catfish' scammed her out of $15K in savings

A woman from Saskatoon says an online scammer drained her bank account, savings and credit limit while pretending to be in love with her.

Marlene Johnson says she would've given "Ben" anything, before she found out he wasn't real

Marlene Johnson says a scammer used these photos of a innocent man to pretend he was a Los Angeles resident named Ben. She said over the course of three months, the scammer convinced her to send him $15,000. The photos have been blurred to protect the man whose identity was stolen. (Submitted by Marlene Johnson)

A woman from Saskatoon says an online scammer drained her bank account, savings and credit limit while pretending to be in love with her.

Marlene Johnson, 62, received a Facebook friend request from an attractive man she didn't know in March.

She looked over his profile and after seeing he had posted about being Christian decided to accept.

He messaged her and the pair began talking on Facebook regularly. They soon switched to texting and later to another app. Sometimes they spoke on the phone.

In those three months, we became soulmates. - Marlene Johnson, Saskatoon mother and grandmother

This went on for three months.

"In those three months, we became soulmates. We talked about everything," said Johnson. "It was a really great relationship. It was very loving."

Johnson said they had "quarrels," but worked through them together.

"It was like we knew each other forever," she said.

The man who introduced himself as Ben said he was from Switzerland and was living in Los Angeles, working as a project manager at an offshore oil rig.

He told her to keep their relationship a secret from her friends and family.

Money grab

When he said he was overseas for business dealings and needed help, Johnson obliged. That time he asked her for a $50 iTunes card to "download documents."

Not long after, he said he was back in the U.S. but needed $10,100 to troubleshoot a shipping issue. He told Johnson the project he was working on would net him $1.2 million, enough to sell his belongings in L.A., move to Canada and marry her.

He promised Johnson he would pay her back double what he borrowed when he got to Canada. She sent him the money through a wire transfer, despite warnings from bankers that it could be a scam.

Then the ask increased. He wanted $125,000, but he was too late.

"I didn't send him anything for that. We had been found out by then," Johnson said.

Johnson and her husband of 33 years got a divorce in 2014. Together, they had three children who are now all in their thirties. Johnson has two grandchildren.

She said her children found out what was going on in May and were shocked. Her daughter helped her change her bank account number, close all her credit cards and change her phone number before she gave any more money. At the time, Johnson was trying to figure out how to get him the $125,000 from her retirement fund.

"They said, 'Mom, how could you have done that?'" said Johnson, who at first was upset that her daughter cut off their communication but soon realized it really was a scam.

"I could be homeless, broke, I could've lost everything," she said.

Romance scams: a $1B market

Johnson admitted that before meeting "Ben," she had watched an episode of Dr. Phil about catfishing — where fraudsters use false identities to form relationships with victims — and thought it could never happen to her.

Since discovering she was scammed, Johnson has done plenty of research on the topic. She said she's learned that scammers prey on divorced women and widows.

 They're great actors.- Karen Smith, Better Business Bureau (BBB) Saskatchewan CEO

According to the Better Business Bureau (BBB) Saskatchewan CEO Karen Smith, scammers target anyone who is vulnerable.

"They try to get at the victim emotionally," Smith said. "They're great actors."

The spread of online dating sites and apps has made what the BBB calls "romance scams" even easier to commit. Victims in the U.S. and Canada have reported losing nearly $1 billion over the last three years.

The BBB estimates that at any one time there may be 25,000 fraudsters online speaking to victims.

The Better Business Bureau (BBB) says “romance scams,” also known as catfishing, has become very common, with victims in the U.S. and Canada reporting a total loss of nearly $1 billion over the last three years. (The Better Business Bureau)

Johnson said her scammer had a thick accent and she suspects he isn't from North America. The photos and video he had sent her were taken off of the profile of a man who to this day, might not know his identity is being used. Johnson said she hasn't been able to find the real "Ben" online.

She did, however, report the scam to the Saskatoon Police Service. She said an officer took down her complaint for statistical purposes but said not much could be done to find the person behind the crime.

Life after the scam

Johnson said she never confronted the scammer after cutting off all communication in May.

She said she was initially "devastated."

"It was awful because he promised me he was going to come to Canada and we were soulmates, we were going to live our lives together, you know, everything was going to be so wonderful," she said. "I never believed it was a scam until it was too late."

Looking back on the incident now, she's angry.

There are so many scammers out there. How could I ever trust another guy?- Marlene Johnson

"These people can take your money and not care about how they've hurt their victims, both myself and the guy they stole the identity from," Johnson said. "They don't care, they just do it."

Johnson said she planned to retire earlier but now has to work until she is at least 65 to make up the money she has lost.

To help with emotional trauma, she's been to see a psychologist and is on a waiting list for a psychiatrist.

Johnson said she has moved on from the ordeal, but hopes sharing her story will help others.

She said she still wants to find her soulmate but said she has sworn off online dating.

"There are so many scammers out there. How could I ever trust another guy?"