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Protect Yourself from Online Dating Fraud

Looking for companionship on the Internet? Hold on to your wallet. Canadians have become targets in a fast-growing form of financial exploitation: online dating.

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Meeting Your Soulmate

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.”

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The Cost of Online Dating Scams

At any given moment, more than one billion people are on the Internet. About half of them are looking for love. No surprise that the online-dating industry currently boasts over 1,500 sites. They vary tremendously, from eHarmony romance farms to niche markets for single parents.

Canadians are among the most avid online daters, with four million visiting dating sites every month. Although more than 800 Canadian online daters filed complaints with the Anti-Fraud Centre this past year, reporting losses of over $6.2 million, Robertson says this likely represents less than one percent of actual financial victims because most are too embarrassed to come forward.

Thanks to the anonymity that the Internet affords, online dating is the perfect stage for savvy scammers. First, they get you to talk about yourself, and use the information you’ve divulged to customize their persona to your needs. Next, they play on your heartstrings until you’re absolutely convinced you’ve met your soulmate. Last comes the coup de grâce: the crisis that only money can fix. “They’re on their way to visit you,” Robertson explains, “and suddenly there’s an emergency or sad story.”

Hector Mendez,* a 52-year-old Ottawa resident, posted a profile on Match.com in the fall of 2010. He couldn’t believe his luck when “Kathleen Cooper” contacted him. “She said she was a businesswoman who lived in Massachusetts,” says Mendez. She described herself as “a 38-year-old divorcee with one child…honest, trustworthy and caring…looking for her soulmate.” It didn’t hurt that she also happened to be a blond bombshell, obvious from the picture she supplied.

Two weeks into their cyber-relationship, the Massachusetts mom informed Mendez she’d be making one of her regular trips to Malaysia, where she bought valuable art to sell in North America at a ridiculously high profit. When she got to Malaysia this time, however, she found so many art bargains that she spent all her cash, forgetting she’d need money to pay the excise, shipping and insurance to get the art out of Malaysia. She asked Mendez to help by loaning her $9,800 via Western Union.

“She was hysterical, saying she didn’t know what to do,” Mendez recalls. “She told me she’d come to Ottawa to sell her art and pay me back double. She even sent me a scan of her flight ticket and a certificate declaring she was the beneficiary of $4.8 million worth of gold and antiques left to her by her father.”

Mendez wired the money to help out his cyber-crush. But she never did arrive in Ottawa; nor did Mendez ever see his $9,800 again.

Often there are secondary players in the dating scam; for example, someone posed as a lawyer to support the Massachusetts art dealer’s story. In fact, perpetrators can range from a lone wolf to international crime gangs and syndicates involving up to 50 people. Det. Mark Fenton, with the Vancouver Police Department’s Technological Crime Unit and Internet Investigations, adds that many of these cyber-dating cons are traced back to people in the West African nations of Ghana, Nigeria and Ivory Coast. These are the same nations, coincidently, that are notorious for the decades-old “inheritance scam,” which promises to share millions in unclaimed inheritance money if you advance a few thousand dollars to facilitate the transaction.

This scam typically involves documents bearing official government stamps and seals, much like the certificate Mendez received. (Con artists are constantly tweaking the con to adapt to changing technologies and laws.)

“Amazingly, you see the same documents used in the original inheritance scam being recycled in today’s online-dating scam,” says Fenton, who points out that some of these documents are actually supplied by authentic bankers, politicians and police officers who are involved in the fraud in these West African nations. “They use Photoshop to alter or insert whatever information they want.”

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How the Scammer Works

He explains that West African dating scammers often work in teams, duping six or seven victims simultaneously. “One of them trawls the dating sites, creates a fictitious profile and steals pictures. A different person speaks to you on the phone. And then they have confederates who live in Asia or Canada who facilitate the movement of money, usually laundering it through Asian accounts.”

Fenton, who has been investigating this type of crime for years, has seen some victims lose six-figure amounts and even their homes. He explains that beyond the money loss, victims feel emotionally violated, as though betrayed by an ex-spouse or lover.

Dorothy Moore,* a 70-year-old widow and resident of Moose Jaw, Sask., agrees. In 2010 she signed up with PlentyOfFish.com. “Within two weeks,” she says, “I got a reply from ‘Benjamin Weissbach,’ a turbine engineer living in California, whose wife had died 12 years before, and who had a daughter.” Soon, “he was all I could think about; I ate and slept him,” she says.

Over the next two months she got emails from Weissbach every morning, including beautiful poems with passionate prose. But the poetry wasn’t original; it was copied and pasted from cyberspace. Nor was there anything original in what came next: There was an incident that prompted Moore to send money. Weissbach’s story? He wanted to help a crippled orphaned girl in Johannesburg. By the time Moore realized she was being scammed, she’d lost $15,000.

Victims come from all walks of life and include doctors, lawyers, teachers and even law-enforcement professionals, says Jody Buell, a peer counsellor with Romancescams.org, a website that originated five years ago to offer assistance to victims. “We’ve had 50,000 people pour into our website from all over the world.”

Buell says a majority of scammers claim to have lost a spouse, child or parent in a horrific accident, or that one of the aforementioned is sick or in hospital. “They typically have no close family, friends or business associates to turn to in an emergency.” In other words, you’ve been set up to play the role of their only option and saviour.

Buell, herself a survivor of a dating scam, explains that victims are invariably shocked when they realize they’ve been conned. “‘Oh, my God, how did I fall for that?’ is a common reaction, as though they’ve just woken up from a dream.”

Law enforcement has noted that this Casanova breed of cyber-criminal invests weeks to months in the courtship phase before he or she strikes. “They build up a rapport and trust before they ask for the money,” says the Vancouver Police Department’s Fenton. The scammers thereby disguise themselves by following society’s accepted rituals of dating, and they keep the relationship going as long as you keep putting out. Fenton explains that when victims call him they’re not reporting a theft; they’re reporting a financial rape. “It’s personal and intimate.”

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The Law and Online Dating Fraud

Furthermore, some con artists use online dating as a sophisticated cover for a phishing attack. Ask for his or her photo and the scammer will supply it as an attachment that has a hidden file in it. Once you click on the attachment, the photo fills your screen, but its malware infects your computer like a nasty digital sexually transmitted disease. Without you knowing it, your scammer now has access to all the content stored on your computer, including your banking passwords.

In some cases, cybercriminals take a completely different approach: They use extortion. Recently, an Ontario woman was looking to have secretive encounters with married men she’d met on dating sites. As they flirted with her, they shared intimate details. Eventually the woman threatened to expose the men to their wives, employers, friends and families, using the supporting proof.

Further illustrating the power of disguise afforded by the Internet, this woman allegedly turned out to be a 43-year-old man from Burlington, Ont. According to Det.-Sgt. Ray Bruce with the Burlington Criminal Investigations Bureau, he is now charged with 11 counts of extortion and one count of harassment.

Can dating sites do more to stop these crimes? Peer counsellor Buell thinks so. She complains that although dating sites have a “report a concern” button, they do not proactively screen for scammers. “The dating site is very much a ‘buyer beware’ industry,” she claims, “and the industry itself does far too little to protect its customers. In fact, when I was scammed, it took four emails before the dating site even responded to me. I was appalled.”

Kate Bilenki, COO of PlentyOfFish, sympathizes, but explains that background checks would be impossible to do with 30,000 people a day signing up on their site (she notes they have only a tiny staff in their B.C. office). “PlentyOfFish removes suspicious profiles,” says Bilenki, “and blocks communications from countries with reputations for scams.”

Perpetrators, however, need only use a proxy server (which allows for indirect network connections to other servers) to get around sites that try to stop specific IP addresses or users in certain countries from entering their sites.

In an ironic twist, sometimes the con job is the dating site itself. Last year a U.S. court sentenced a British Columbia man to more than four years in prison for operating a $1.2-million online-dating scam that involved about 200 bogus websites. It’s reported that victims paid as much as $1,500 for membership and then were matched with imaginary people.

As it stands right now, with the finite resources allocated to Canadian police forces and the fact that no Canadian law-enforcement entity has been given a clear mandate to police the Internet, catching and punishing online-dating con artists is an enormous challenge. Add to this the fact that the vast majority of perpetrators are beyond Canada’s jurisdictional reach and it’s easy to understand why the romance scam is considered the perfect crime. Once your money is gone, nothing will-or can-be done to get it back.

And for those who think they’re immune to a con’s ensnarement, take heed of Fenton’s words: “The only reason I haven’t fallen victim is because someone hasn’t come up with the right story and pushed my hot buttons to make me believe.”

So, anyone can be fooled. The right bait at the right time can be more powerful than your instinct for caution. That’s the art of the con.

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Tips to Protect Yourself

When signing up with an online-dating service, be sure to set realistic goals and boundaries from the start. If your goal is eventually to go on a date in person, consider the practicality of getting involved with someone who lives on the other side of the globe. Staying local drastically reduces your odds of being scammed, since most scammers target victims outside their areas to avoid being caught or prosecuted.

Never share personal data until you meet the person face to face. Investigate your cyber-date. Search his or her name and details online. “With a little digging you can find out where their emails originate or whether they’re using throwaway cellphones,” says Vancouver police detective Mark Fenton. If they’ve scammed others, it might show up on warning sites such as pigbusters.net and romancescams.org.

Here are some common red flags to help identify scammers:
1. They claim to live in North America but are currently working overseas.
2. Their grammar skills and phrasing contradict the online persona they’ve engineered.
Tip: Ask a lot of questions and look for further contradictions.
3. They try to get you off the dating site fast, preferring to communicate directly through instant messaging and email, with Yahoo! being a favourite.
4. They proclaim to have fallen madly in love with you within a few emails, although you’ve never met in person.
5. They ask you to send or loan them money because of some problem or emergency; for instance, they’re having trouble cashing a cheque; they’ve been robbed, beaten, mugged or need surgery; or their passport is being held.
6. After falling victim to the scam described in No. 5, you’re contacted by the police or a government official offering assistance in getting your money back. This may be the scammers recycling their victims in a spinoff scam. One victim in Ontario, who lost $20,000, lost an additional $10,000 to this bogus recovery scam.

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How Online Dating Scams Work

Here are excerpts from love letters that one scammer used to woo Dorothy Moore,* a 70-year-old widow from Moose Jaw, Sask., before conning her out of $15,000:

Tuesday, September 7, 2010
This feeling of love that I hold within my heart for you runs deeper than any ocean or sea; I just wish you could see how much you mean to me. If only you could hold me, then maybe you would feel my love for you that burns with a flame high enough to last. If only you could hear my heart beat, then maybe you would understand the language of love with which it speaks. If only you could kiss me, then maybe you would taste my love for you that’s so sweet, and if only you could look into my eyes.

I give you this heart of mine and ask nothing less or nothing more, but just that you don’t go breaking my heart. My love and trust is all I have to give to you, sealed with honesty throughout and as time goes by, may it grow stronger to fulfill your heart’s desire.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010
I have no family, I don’t really keep friends, all I have is God and my daughter and those [300] little orphans [who I’m financing around the world]. I am God-fearing and go to church when needed. Please, will you accept me for who I am as a friend?

Tuesday, November 30, 2010
I love you so much with all of my heart and I want to let you know that I really miss you so much. So please take care, baby, and have a nice day. May you feel the part of me wanting to be with you now and may I have the honour to touch your heart and let you feel my love. Take care, and I love you. You can go to the bank and check the check. Or you can as well check it online, my love. Please do that.

* Names changed to protect privacy.