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Romance scams: When love comes at a price

January 31, 2024

Michelle1, who is recently divorced, meets a “friend” on a popular online dating site. While she lives in Trois-Rivières, Jack is from Ottawa but has moved overseas. As a businessman, he often travels for work. Given the distance, they start a virtual romantic relationship, which goes on for many months.

Here’s Michelle’s story

It all started when Jack asked Michelle to help him pay for his overseas internet service because his bank account was frozen and he could no longer communicate with Michelle. Not long after, he tells her his wallet was stolen and later has some legal problems due to it. After all, he says, fraud is very common in this part of the world.

Over time, he asks for larger and larger amounts of money and makes more and more requests for international fund transfers. Michelle parts with tens of thousands of dollars—and a good part of her self-esteem.

Unfortunately, Michelle's story is a classic example of a romance scam. She was crushed when she learned that she was an unwitting intermediary in a fraud ring. After all, she had an education, a career… she never thought she'd fall victim to such a thing. But as we can see, it can happen to absolutely anyone.

Michelle was lucky and had a proactive Desjardins advisor, who helped her take stock of the situation.

From trust to humiliation

Scammers are masters of manipulation who take the time to build trust with their victims.  They're also very skilled in providing excuses and reassurance when questioned. During this time, victims are convinced they've found true love.

Sometimes it takes them months, or even years, to realize they're being scammed. Once they do, they feel duped and ashamed at having been taken advantage of. And that's not to mention the money they've lost, which in some cases comprises their entire life savings!

Double fraud

The chances of getting the money back are slim, and unfortunately, victims of romance scams are likely to be scammed again. That’s why vigilance is key, because the same fraudsters could be posing as law enforcement, such as the RCMP or Interpol. They'll contact you with the promise of recovering your lost money, provided you first pay a fee for opening the file, for the investigation, for a lawyer, and so on.

A real authority figure will never ask for money to take legal steps to recover money.

Preventing romance scams: Good habits to have on social media and dating sites

Social media, apps and dating sites can be a great way to develop and maintain relationships, whether they're romantic or platonic. However, some ill-intentioned people create fake profiles to find their next potential victim.

Here are some tips to help you protect yourself:

  1. Search up the person who contacts you. See if there's any information about the person online and use reverse image search to confirm the source of their photo. Scammers don't use their own photos to create fake profiles.
  2. On social media, check out their profiles. Does the number of friends seem to be very low, or are they spread out around the world? Is there little interaction on the account, or has the profile been created very recently? It's important to identify any inconsistencies.
  3. Be careful about what you post online. Cybercriminals can use what you share online to pretend that they have the same interests as you. They can also use it to create a more believable profile to win your trust. Check out our tips to protect your privacy online.
  4. Be wary of urgent requests and never disclose confidential information, such as your banking information. If someone you've never met in person asks you for money, be careful, no matter what the pretext is what their story is. It could very well be a scam. If you have any doubts, talk about it with someone you trust.

5 warning signs to watch out for

Although there may be other strategies scammers use, here are some early warning signs of a romance scam:

  1. You meet the person on a dating app or site or on social media. The person might also try to get you to continue the conversation on another messaging app so they don't lose contact with you if their false profile is reported.
  2. For various reasons, they aren’t available for a video chat or an in-person meeting.
  3. The lover is, or lives, outside the province or country.
  4. Something unusual happens to the lover, like an accident, sick loved one, legal troubles, upcoming inheritance.
  5. The requests for money are small at first but increase over time. For example, phone or internet bills, travel expenses, legal fees, etc.

If several of these signs add up, it’s time to start questioning yourself. Ask someone you trust for advice if this is your case.

Payment methods can be quite varied.

The scammer might ask to be paid in cash and give you instructions on how to make a transfer. They might also ask you to pay them in crypto (which is increasingly popular). They might also ask you to send money to people they know (such as their sibling, parent or lawyer) for different reasons.

Reporting to the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre

If you think that you or someone close to you has been the victim of a romance scam, contact the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre. You can also report it to your local police.  Victims of this type of fraud and their loved ones can also find support in their area by consulting the Victim Services Directory, which lists the various victim service organizations and providers across Canada.

You can also contact us at 1-800-224-7737 to get support or to discuss the situation confidentially.

Feel free to get help from your caisse if you want more information on the fraud prevention resources Desjardins offers.

1. Names have been changed to protect the privacy of our members.