For seven days, Black Press journalist Andrea DeMeer played the victim in a romance scam executed over Facebook Messenger, to understand how criminals manipulate others and try to walk away with their money. A message in the inbox, at first, appeared to be from an old friend, but the conversation quickly became suspicious. After approximately 20 hours of online chatting, it was the scammer who was disappointed in love.
That’s how a romance scam can start.
Earlier this month a Princeton man reported to RCMP he was duped by a person online who promised to travel to the town for a couples’ visit, in exchange for gift cards.
The gift cards were purchased and sent as promised, yet the visit never materialized.
In the first six months of this year, the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre (CAFC) received 521 reports of romance scams from across the country, accounting for losses of $19.2 million.
That equals almost the total recorded amount of money siphoned in 2020 and represents only a small fraction of actual offences, according to CAFC spokesperson Jeff Horncastle.
“Keep in mind that only roughly five per cent of victims report to the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre,” he told the Spotlight.
Romance scams are usually linked to organized crime originating from around the world, and are some of the most lucrative enterprises for fraudsters, he said.
“Romance victims tend to lose a lot of money in general because of the emotional connection and trust they believe they have with suspects and the fact that these types of scams can sometimes last for years,” Horncastle said.
Scams often start slowly, including early protestations of love and with the suspect taking small amounts of money, but can escalate quickly, he noted. “The range of loss can be anywhere from a few dollars to hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
In addition to being financially devastating, the outcomes can be tragically fatal.
Ryan Panton, manager of the BC Coroners Service media department, said between 2017 and 2020 the office investigated three deaths by suicide “that include references to financial fraud committed through online dating.”
Karen Ringness lives in Calgary, but her sister Colleen was a longtime resident of B.C.’s Lower Mainland.
“She was really funny, really caring, with a huge open heart,” Ringness said in a telephone interview. “She was good. She was smart. She worked in an office and she owned her own home. She did very well.
“She always wanted to get married and have the white picket fence thing, but it never really happened.”
Then in 2016, she began meeting people on a dating website and entered into a relationship with someone called Ryan Scott. Ringness calls Scott “the invisible man,” who claimed to be a millionaire working on an oil rig.
“Her whole demeanour changed. She was happy in love. We talked about it as the months went by…I had a feeling something was not right here, and I tried to approach her on it. She was very elusive, evasive.”
Colleen and Scott never met, and she never saw a video of her Romeo. “She didn’t really speak to him, it was all texting.”
He first asked her for $1,500 to pay a customs fee on a box at the U.S.-Canada border.
Shortly after she was double-tapped by a person messaging her, claiming to represent a diplomatic service, insisting she needed to come up with more money because forwarding the initial fee implicated her in criminality.
Over 22 months she paid nearly $1 million, sold her home, destroyed her credit, borrowed from friends and lived in constant fear of imprisonment.
“Sometimes I have a hard time believing this actually happened,” said Ringness, who made frantic but ultimately futile attempts to intervene, visiting Colleen several times and even contacting RCMP.
“She wouldn’t listen to anybody.”
On Oct. 9, 2019, Colleen took her own life, leaving behind a three-page letter explaining how she was literally hounded to death by scammers. She was 61.
“I’m not 100 per cent certain if she figured it out before she took her own life,” said Ringness. “I think she believed right until the very last paragraph of this letter that Ryan was real and they were really going to try. She was angry at him in this letter and then at the very end it’s almost like she worded it to say ‘maybe this has all been a scam.’ And she just left it at that.”
Being intelligent and capable is not necessarily a defence against a romance scam, according to Dr. Michael Woodworth, a psychologist and professor at the University of British Columbia. Affairs of the heart impact judgment, he said.“We have heightened emotions. As emotions go up, the one thing, tried and true that we know from psychology, is decision-making ability goes down.”
Scammers understand psychological pressure points and use them to their advantage.
Examples include exploiting a person’s innate fear of “missing out,” and preying on the natural desire to reciprocate kindness. As well, scammers are aided by what is called “a truth bias,” a predisposition to assume others are honest, which acts as a buffer against feelings of anxiety and paranoia.
“Human beings are naturally geared, for a variety of reasons, for assuming that a person is, or is more likely, telling the truth. We see this in studies all the time.”
Woodworth is not surprised that reported romance scam losses are on target in 2021 to double over the previous year, given the COVID-19 pandemic. “Scammers and fraudsters love times of uncertainty and unrest…(and) there are a lot of lonely people out there right now,” he said.
There is more than one way to fleece a romance scam victim, according to the CAFC.
“We do get many reports of extortion. Although the victim and suspect may meet on a dating site, the suspects normally move very quickly into asking the victim to share an intimate video with them,” said Horncastle.
“The suspect will threaten to share the video with family members and on social media if the victim doesn’t pay an amount of money.”
The centre is also noting an alarming increase in romance scams transitioning to investment frauds with victims being convinced to send cryptocurrency and invest in companies that just don’t exist.
Cryptocurrency and gift cards are favoured by scammers because they are difficult to trace, said Horncastle, although the majority of scams involve wire transfers.
Horncastle stressed the following for people in online relationships:
• Beware of individuals quickly professing their love for you.
• Beware of individuals who claim to be wealthy, but need to borrow money.
• When trying to set up an in-person meeting, be suspicious if they always provide you with reasons to cancel. If you do proceed, meet in a public place and inform someone of the details.
• Never send intimate photos or video of yourself as they may be used to blackmail you.
• Never send or accept money under any circumstances. You may, unknowingly, be participating in money-laundering which is a criminal offence.
“A romance scam is a fraud because the relationship is based on a lie with the intention of taking money from the victim. Fraud can be simplified as stealing money with a lie,” said Cpl. Kim Chamberland, media relations officer for RCMP.
“Scammers will often not directly ask for money but will prey on their victim’s emotions by suggesting that they need help…The RCMP strongly recommends that anyone who has been a victim of a scam or fraud, please contact your local police. We also recommend you report any instance, whether you are a victim or not, to the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre via their Online Reporting System or by phone at 1-888-495-8501.”
And that’s how a romance scam can end, if one is very lucky.
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