When the lovelorn become cyber victims
Single and lonely for too long, your heart is pounding with anticipation at a Canadian airport while you stare at the arrival escalator for a young woman to arrive from Russia.
You met her on a dating site. She said she wants to spend the rest of her life with you. And it only cost you $2,000 for her one-way airline ticket, plus the dozen roses you hold in your trembling hands.
But when all passengers disembark, the angel of your dreams isn’t among them.
Surprise! You’ve been conned.
Your dream has turned into a nightmare, like those of hundreds of other Canadians victimized by the exploding industry of dating scams.
Dating scams are a booming, lucrative business, feeding off the single and lonely, earning a sordid reputation as the most popular fraud target in Canada, according to a recent Canadian Press report.
The Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre (CFAC) said Canadians lost $17 million last year to online dating fraud. It said that in the past three years, Canadians have lost more money in the scams than any other kind of fraud.
Authorities warn it’s buyer beware when subscribing to online dating sites, which have mushroomed into a $4-billion industry worldwide.
The cyber-crooks are out to steal more than just hearts. And they prey on the most vulnerable — the lonely who feel isolated without a partner to share there lives.
Last year, according to the anti-fraud centre, there were 1,460 complaints in Canada of romance fraud, with 1,047 victims identified. One Canadian woman lost $43,000. Another lost $32,000 to the apparent man of her dreams, who had been sending her fake photos for months — and was a real sweet talker. After winning her heart, he requested money, claiming he was having custom difficulties in Europe. She fell for it.
Pursuit Magazine, a leading educational media publisher for professional investigators, says “it doesn’t take a fool to be a victim. We’ve seen attorneys, doctors and, yes, police officers, fall victim to online dating scams.”
The game can also turn deadly, warns one Internet site aimed at identifying scammers. Since 1995, the site claims, there have been more than 400 homicides linked to persons that met the victims online.
In one incident a 47-year-old man posing as a 21-year-old U.S. Marine officer developed a steamy relationship with a 17-year-old girl. Things got ugly when a friend of the fake Marine also started up a chat with the girl. The pal was shot dead in a rage of jealousy. Ironically, the girl was actually a middle-aged woman using pictures of her daughter on the dateline.
These websites are growing in popularity because of success stories. A recent survey by the dating site eHarmony shows as many as a third of Americans married since 2005 met online.
But Canadian Press reports criminals out of country have quietly and effectively wormed into the popularity, using false identities and trying to earn the trust of the victims before asking for money. And that makes fraud investigations all the more difficult.
“The computer is a wonderful place for people to hide, so it’s difficult for us to do the investigation if funds are sent out of the country,” said Staff Sgt. Stephanie Burns of the Ottawa police anti-fraud section. “Then it’s an international investigation ... it becomes extremely hard for us to get the correct documentation.”
It’s a highly sophisticated operation, according to Pursuit Magazine, involving groups in Malaysia, Philippines, Romania, Colombia, the U.K., Ghana, Nigeria and South Africa. But it rates Russia and the Ukraine as the highest risk countries in the world.
“In these regions,” says Pursuit, “we’re seeing Internet- and tech-savvy Internet criminals working with beautiful women (or their photos) to scam foreigners in Canada, the U.S., Australia and the U.K.”
Daniel Williams of the anti-fraud centre in Canada told Canadian Press that the scams are an overwhelming success because organized crime can take on fraud on a massive scale. In 2006, Russian police busted such an operation run out of a dozen rented apartments by over 100 (mostly) young males aged 18 to 35, using about 50 computers and cellphones. Seized records showed the scammers were communicating with 750 victims and pulling in around $300,000 a month.
One anti-scam Internet site reports scams initially start with a revealing photo of a beautiful young woman or a good-looking man, who are not the actual writers. The photos may be of a model or taken out of a porn magazine. “Or the photos may simply be downloaded from someone’s home website.”
Scammers are now infiltrating “legitimate” dating sites, Twitter and Facebook.
Authorities say the victims are losing millions annually. But it’s tough to determine how much because in many cases those suckered are too embarrassed to report the fraud.
The general rule is if it seems to good to be true, then that’s likely the case.
Rick Zemanek is a former Advocate editor.