Romance scams ranked again last year as one of the top 10 most frequently reported scams by Canadians, with victims losing some $19 million per year. The number itself is big enough. What’s more frightening is that this figure is almost certainly only the tip of the iceberg. The shame and embarrassment people feel when they’ve fallen victim to this scam is powerful, so victims often don’t report.

Around Christmas, New Year’s, and Valentine’s Day, it’s difficult for some people to be alone. If someone is lonely, they’re vulnerable.

The scam is a basic con job and it’s not new. A half century ago, this scam would have been perpetrated through mail. In the last few decades, it might have started with an email. And now, it’s dating sites and social media. Scammers are pros at building fake profiles that seem legitimate, with photos, career information, and family pictures. Evidence of a whole life … a life that doesn’t exist.

It starts when a lonely person receives a message from someone who expresses romantic interest. Over time, the scammer builds trust. They send long, heartfelt messages, painting a picture of a lifetime together. They make the victim feel special; wanted, needed, and loved. The victim is so enamoured that they overlook the warning signs. Their suitor can’t meet in person or talk on the phone. There’s always a good reason, mind you; a common reason is that they’re deployed on active military service.

Then, something happens. Maybe an elderly relative has fallen sick, the suitor must get home to be with their family. Or maybe their child is ill and needs surgery or medication urgently. Either way, their banking is messed up and they need their soulmate to wire money.

Then it happens again and again. Each time the scammer successfully extracts more money from the victim, it’s even more difficult for the victim to back out. Acknowledging the truth at this point would mean that they’ve been played for a fool and they don’t want to give up hope that the love is for real.

There’s an even more nefarious angle. Sometimes the victim is lucky enough to have caring friends or family who notice what’s going on. But the scammers anticipate this. Just as they are luring the victim in, building hope and trust in a future relationship, they’re also driving a wedge between them and the people around them who want to help. They’ll tell the victim that no one can possibly understand the love between them. They’re jealous of their love and they just want the victim to be alone forever.

I know this sounds exaggerated but it’s not. We received an email at the office a few years ago from the brother of a victim who was involved (or so he thought) in an online relationship with a woman he’d never met. The victim had already sent $35,000 to the scammer, and there was surely going to be more. His brother was looking for help, because the victim had been turned against his family. He didn’t trust them anymore … only the scammer.

There are consistent telltale signs that someone you care about might be caught up in a catfishing scam. They have been lonely and they’re in a new relationship with someone they haven’t met face-to-face, there are requests for money, and signs of mistrust towards friends and family.

Romance scam victims often suffer emotional pain that is at least as serious as their financial losses, so be aware of the warning signs and watch out for the people you care about. Particularly over the coming months when we all want loved ones around us.

For more tips on avoiding these and other holiday-related scams, check out our website

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