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Just the facts: romance scams

Romance scammers dangle the possibility of companionship and love to take money from the people they defraud. Credit: Shutterstock


Millions of people turn to online dating apps or social-networking websites to meet someone. But, instead of finding companionship or love, some end up becoming victims of romance scammers who leave a trail of broken hearts and empty bank accounts.

What is a romance scam

A romance scam is when a person creates a false identity and pretends to have romantic feelings for a victim to gain their trust and affection for the purpose of obtaining their money. The scam usually unfolds like this:

Step 1
Fraudsters research potential victims online, including reviewing their social media posts, to develop a tailored strategy for each victim and improve their chances of success.
Step 2
After developing an online relationship and gaining the victim's trust, the fraudster usually fakes a scenario where they need quick money — such as a crisis or an investment opportunity.
Step 3
The scammer then requests money, cryptocurrency, gifts, or investments. They might also send money to the victim to build further trust or engage the victim as a money mule or courier in an illegal transaction. Eventually the victim becomes aware of the scam, many times after they've handed over thousands of dollars, at which point the fraudster stops communicating with them.

Common lies and stories

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has compiled a list of common lies romance scammers frequently tell their victims that help make the scam appear legitimate. For example, to explain why they cannot meet the victim in person, scammers will tell them they have an occupation where they frequently travel or are away for long periods of time. Common ones are:

  • working on an oil rig
  • being in the military
  • working as a doctor with an international organization

The FTC says romance scammers often ask their victims for money to pay for:

  • plane tickets or other travel expenses
  • surgery or other medical expenses
  • customs fees to retrieve an item of value
  • gambling debts
  • visas or other official travel documents

The numbers

  • The Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre received 1,249 complaints of romance scams from 925 Canadian victims with a loss of more than $50 million in 2021
  • Romance scams were responsible for the second highest amount of fraud-related dollar loss in 2021, led only by investment scams
  • Reported instances of romance fraud are likely much lower than actual numbers because many victims never report the crime or tell their loved ones due to shame, fear of ridicule, and denial

What are the effects

In February 2022 a Toronto woman reported to police she had lost her life savings in a romance scam. Becoming a victim like her can have devastating consequences:

  • Romance scams can be traumatizing for the victims because they truly believe they have found love
  • In addition to financial ruin, victims can feel deep shame and embarrassment

How to protect yourself

If you suspect you're being victimized by a romancer scammer, here are some ways to protect yourself:

  • Conduct an online search. Try to learn the person's identity or see if their photo has been copied from the internet
  • Beware of people who claim to have fallen in love fast and try to push the relationship forward quickly.
  • If you're being asked for money, this is a red flag. Don't send any.

Where to get help

If you or someone you know has been victimized by a romance scam, you should:

  • Stop all communication with the person
  • Call your local police
  • Contact your bank and place a stop payment on any cheques or money transfers
  • File a report with the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre at 1-888-495-8501 or online through its Fraud Reporting System
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