This Con Man’s Romance Scheme Targeted Women Across Canada

He promised they’d be together forever. How Marcel Vautour broke women's hearts and bank accounts.

romance con man Marcel VautourPhoto courtesy Andréa Speranza; Photo-illustration by John Montgomery

Meeting Romeo

Like most middle-aged women dipping a toe back into the dating scene, Jodi got on Tinder because a friend convinced her to. They were hanging out, drinking wine. It was a few weeks into 2018, and Jodi, a health information analyst in West Kelowna, B.C., hadn’t been on a date in more than 23 years. Her profile mentioned her love of camping and kayaking and included a link to her favourite country song, “Meant to Be.”

One of the first guys she met was Andy. She was sitting in her home office when she got a message from him: “I like your profile.” Turns out they had the same favourite song, which felt promising. They met at Starbucks that afternoon, and Andy told her he was moving back home to Canada after having spent the last decade in Vietnam. He was an engineer on offshore oil rigs and had apparently done well for himself. Now he wanted to slow down and enjoy life with someone who wanted the same things. He told her his name was actually Marcel Andre Vautour. Jodi started calling him Dre.

On their third date, sitting together in her living room, Dre told Jodi he was falling for her. Big time. “Everything he said was exactly what I wanted to hear,” says Jodi (who asked us not to print her last name).

They started to plan their life together. Dre would have to go back to Vietnam to get his money, much of which, he explained, was in gold bars. They would go together, he said—sort of like a honeymoon. First, though, he was going to take a job delivering water to oil rigs in Edmonton. It would just be a few weeks, and the money was great, he told Jodi. Then he asked if he could borrow $500, so he could pay for the recertification required to take the job. Jodi wasn’t totally comfortable with the idea, but Dre had a story about how he couldn’t access his own funds and promised to pay her back. And at the time, she believed him.

Like other fraudsters, phony Romeos are thriving in the digital era, when you don’t even have to meet your mark in person—or live on the same continent—to take them for all they’re worth. According to the most recent numbers from the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre (CAFC), romance fraud cost Canadians $19 million in 2019. That’s more than any other form of fraud in terms of monetary losses. It’s also an extremely low estimate: The CAFC and the FBI believe that only between five and 15 per cent of fraud victims contact the authorities, meaning the actual damage is far greater, from both a financial and psychological perspective.

Under the right circumstances, almost anyone can fall prey to romance fraud, but the most common victims are well-educated women in their late 40s, 50s and 60s. (The FBI estimates that 82 per cent of victims are female, but that number may be off since it’s possible men are even less likely to report.) They tend to be trustworthy, prone to impulsivity, community-minded and, yes, romantic.

To a con man, your Facebook page provides an invaluable cheat sheet: a years-long record of your interests, values and personality, including the organizations you care about, the politics you subscribe to, your hobbies and favourite TV shows. So suddenly you’re not just meeting some guy—you’re meeting a fellow outdoor enthusiast who also loves dogs or basket weaving or your favourite song.

Shortly before Jodi was expecting Dre back from Edmonton, he called to say he was in trouble over unpaid back taxes. He had a big cheque to cash from the Edmonton job—a little more than $49,000—but if he put it in his account, the government would claim it. Without the money, he couldn’t pay his subcontractors. They wouldn’t be able to go on their trip. There was one possible solution, he said—not immediately, and almost like it had just occurred to him. Maybe he could have his employer make the cheque out to Jodi, and they could deposit it into her account instead. Jodi questioned whether this was legal; Dre’s answer was that pretty soon their names would be on the same cheques anyway. Wasn’t that what she wanted, too?

They were on FaceTime when Dre e-deposited the cheque into Jodi’s business account and got her to transfer him $19,500. To this day, she doesn’t understand why her bank didn’t put a hold on such a large deposit.

It was the Easter long weekend, and that same afternoon, Jodi flew to Vegas for a wedding. She told everyone about her new boyfriend. “People said I was glowing,” she recalls. After she got home, she drove to the grocery store. Dre would be back in a few hours, and she wanted to have dinner ready. At the checkout, her debit card was declined. A second card didn’t work either. Her stomach started to sink. When she got home, she sat down at the computer and brought up her banking information, which confirmed that Dre’s cheque had bounced, leaving her nearly $20,000 in overdraft. Between that and the money she had lent him for work expenses and accommodations, she was out $45,000. Her dream man was a con man. And he was gone.

Criminal history

Police records on Marcel Andre Vautour go back at least 24 years. While romance scams appear to be his specialty, other allegations and charges against him include credit card fraud, identity theft, possession of goods obtained by crime over $5,000, obtaining by false pretense and auto theft. He has mostly escaped prosecution, but in 2005 he did receive a suspended sentence of one year’s probation in Quebec for credit card fraud. In 2009, he served a six-month conditional sentence in Victoria, followed by two and a half years of probation, for fraud. There are active arrest warrants for him in Quebec and Manitoba. The fact that romance fraud is almost never handled federally plays a key role in how scammers are able to evade capture by skipping from one jurisdiction to another.

Soon after being conned, Jodi was approached by a 46-year-old B.C. nurse named Rosey, who had also fallen for Vautour’s stories while going through a difficult patch with her husband. Rosey ended up giving Vautour just under $7,000 before he disappeared on her—but she discovered a Facebook page he’d created while he was with Jodi. Talking on the phone, the two women discovered that Vautour had told them the same tall tales about gold bars and fancy homes, and both had seen the same photo of the bed covered in American cash. Investigating Vautour soon became their shared passion project. They would check in every few days, giving each other assignments: Jodi traced the phony cheque that he had deposited into her account. Rosey spoke with members of Vautour’s family in Quebec and New Brunswick. They learned a lot about their scammer but nothing about his whereabouts. “We had almost given up,” says Rosey. “And then we heard from Andréa.”

Andréa Speranza, a 50-year-old divorcee and fire captain, met Vautour at a Tim Hortons in Halifax three months after he had scammed Jodi and Rosey. He was using the name March Hebert. On their first date, Vautour casually mentioned that his Crohn’s disease sometimes held him back from physical activity. About four months later, when Vautour said he had a medical emergency relating to his Crohn’s, she lent him $1,500, then $500 more when it turned out the medication he needed was more expensive than he thought, then another $2,000 for a second dose. He couldn’t access his own money, he said, because his backpack had been stolen. Looking back, she sees how the stolen backpack and the unproven medical claims were warning signs, but in the moment her brain just didn’t go there. “What seems crazier, the idea that he had his backpack stolen or that every single thing he ever told me was a lie?”

Their relationship lasted just over five months. During this time, Andréa gave Vautour about $5,000, most of it for medication. The last time she saw him, he was going to Toronto to pick up his dog from his ex. (Andréa paid for his train and accommodations.) From Toronto, he emailed her a link to the hotel he wanted to stay at; it came from an email address under a name Andréa didn’t recognize: March Vautour. Unsure of what this might mean, she started typing variations of Vautour’s name into Facebook, ultimately landing on a picture of her boyfriend with a single word written across it: BEWARE!

To catch a scammer

If the scammer has used a real name (or has a lot of online aliases), a private investigator can run a background check and hopefully find a criminal record and track them to an address—perhaps even locate assets. Then their victims can serve them with a small claims charge. This may or may not cover the full extent of the loss—in Ontario, for example, small claims max out at $35,000—but it’s often the best of the three available options, the other two being civil or criminal charges. Victims of romance fraud can (and should) make a complaint with the police, but actual criminal charges are rare. Numerous victims and experts I spoke with say that just getting the authorities to take a complaint seriously can be a challenge.

When Rosey went to the police, she was told that yes, Marcel Andre Vautour was a fraudster with a lengthy record of complaints. But since she had sent him the money while they were dating, proving criminal activity would be difficult. It was Andréa’s idea to take their manhunt public. In March 2019, she launched “Stop the March Madness Campaign,” an online publicity blitz with three objectives: to raise awareness about the prominence of romance fraud, to provide support and community to victims and, of course, to catch the dirtbag who did this to them.

They got a few tips from women who had been out with Vautour in Toronto, but nothing particularly useful—until they heard from Nikola. The 28-year-old backpacker was visiting Toronto from the Czech Republic on a 12-month work visa and first met “Marc” at a hostel in North York in March 2019. Nikola and Vautour were never a couple; instead he said he could get her a well-paying job working as his assistant. When she mentioned her plan to drive to B.C., Vautour showed her a photo of his beach house in White Rock that he had been meaning to get back to and offered to come along for the ride. After giving her a (fake) contract, he suggested Nikola get a Canadian credit card and went along to the bank posing as her new employer. Over the next three weeks, Vautour racked up $5,000 in charges on Nikola’s card and stole another $500 by depositing an empty envelope into her bank account.

Soon after they arrived in B.C. together, Vautour had to leave; an emergency, he said. By the time Nikola realized what had happened, she was alone and broke.

Nikola gave Vautour’s other victims a good tip: Vautour had bought himself a fancy backpack with her credit card, and knowing him, he would try to sell it. Rosey went onto Kijiji, and there was the identical backpack, for sale by a guy in Nanaimo named Marc.

This was June 2019. Jodi immediately left for Nanaimo with her new boyfriend, Vince. Rosey was also en route. They started visiting the kinds of places where he’d typically hang out. At Tim Hortons, a worker said Vautour had been in just a few hours ago. At a library, they showed a flyer of Vautour to a guy, who responded, “Oh yeah, sure. That’s Marc.” He was living just a few blocks away at the Salvation Army.

At this point, Jodi had spent more than a year fantasizing about coming face to face with the guy who nearly ruined her life. “I wasn’t looking for an apology or anything. I just wanted him to see that he hadn’t broken me,” she says. Just as she and Vince walked through the door at the Salvation Army, she spotted Vautour walking out in the other direction. “Hey, Dre,” she said, cornering him in the reception area. At first, it seemed like he was trying to place her. And then he looked scared. He claimed he had been messed up on drugs when they were together and he barely remembered anything. He was finally getting clean and would pay her back, he said, before getting buzzed into a secure area of the shelter. Jodi called 911.

By the time police got there, Vautour had vanished.

That day was the last time Jodi, Rosey, Andréa or Nikola have seen Vautour. They are still in touch with each other and with a community of people (16 in total, so far) who allege that Vautour defrauded them.

Andréa has taken a self-defence course and installed a new security system at her home. Rosey is living apart from her estranged husband. Nikola has returned to the Czech Republic. Jodi has been with Vince for nearly two years now. That day in Nanaimo, when she saw Vautour, her heart was pumping pure ice. But sometimes she’ll come across a photo of the two of them, and she’ll feel a sudden rush of affection. “It’s only for a second. I have to knock myself in the head and remind myself of who he really is.” That part is worse than losing the money, although not as bad as the shame.

Yes, romance scammers are master manipulators who target, groom and exploit innocent victims. But our culture has its own role to play. “Invisible woman syndrome” describes the phenomenon wherein women are ignored after they reach a certain age—by potential employers, by suitors, by bartenders. No longer imbued with youth or fertility, we have ceased to serve our biological purpose and are deemed less valuable. Then along comes a person who sees you and appreciates you and promises to make all of your dreams come true. Who wouldn’t want to believe in that?

Next, read the true story of how an elderly woman was defrauded of her life savings.

© 2020, Courtney Shea. From “He Stole Their Hearts, Then Their Money. Meet the Women Trying to Catch One of Canada’s Most Prolific Romance Scammers,” Châtelaine (January/February 2020). Chatelaine.com.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest Canada