After her 25-year marriage ended, Patricia Martin* was determined she wouldn’t spend her life alone. A mother of three who worked odd hours, she thought Internet dating would be a perfect fit. “I work from 3 to 11 p.m., so it’s difficult to meet someone,” says the 54-year-old who lives just outside Ottawa. She signed up with online-dating service Mate1.com and created a profile stating she was looking for “a good friend, companion and soulmate.”
Here’s what Martin didn’t realize: By signing up to meet her “soulmate,” she added her personal information to the kind of database increasingly used by domestic and international con artists. Internet-dating sites provide easy pickings for these scammers. After all, reconnaissance—or the scoping-out of victims and their vulnerabilities—has already been done for them. As one law-enforcement official put it, “Right away, the bad guy knows all about you.”
Shortly after her profile and picture went up on Mate1.com, Martin met “Richard Cody.” “Richard was good looking and a U.S. military officer whom I saw from the pictures he sent me,” she says. After emailing back and forth over a few weeks, she learned he was from New Jersey but was deployed in Iraq. “He said he had a son who was 13, and that his wife had been killed in a car accident, and his wife’s friend was looking after the boy while he was deployed.”
In reality, the man of her dreams was a native of Ghana who’d never been in the United States or Iraq. He was armed, however, with all the personal information Martin had provided about herself when signing up. She did not specify that she was looking for a military man, but she did state in her profile that she wanted a man who was honest, had integrity and was trustworthy. What better knight in shining armour than a man in uniform? (Indeed, military men are common covers for scammers.) Drawing on these details, the Ghanaian con artist spent a year winning Martin’s confidence via email. He even sent her scanned images of a diplomatic U.S. passport as well as several pictures of himself.
The scammer’s story began to fall apart when Martin, feeling uneasy, sent one of these pictures to a girlfriend who found the same picture online—it was an image of a real U.S. army general named Richard Cody, who had an entirely different life. But the discovery came too late: Martin had already wired thousands of dollars to another continent to help the supposed military man get a package to his son in New Jersey.
RCMP Cpl. Louis Robertson, with the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre, knows this story all too well. “We refer to it as the 'romance pitch,’” he says, adding that scammers trawl dating sites, make up a fake name and swipe a picture from the thousands available on the Internet. “Unfortunately, the victim falls in love with a name, a picture and a fairy tale.”