Can Money Buy Love? Romance Scammers Want You to Believe It.

Valentine’s Day is approaching, and scams are in the air.Credit…Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

They met on a dating website in 2018, and it wasn’t long before Jon Boulder convinced Amy Todd that investing thousands of dollars into his equine business would generate profits to help supplement her income as a single mother. When the riches never materialized, Ms. Todd researched the company and her love story unraveled. His name wasn’t even Jon Boulder.

Romance scammers in Canada make off with millions of dollars each year, a fact that the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre likes to remind us of before Valentine’s Day. Romance scams are one of the most prevalent types of fraud in terms of Canadians’ lost dollars, second only to investment scams.

“It’s humiliating,” Ms. Todd, an office worker in Brantford, Ontario, told me. “I hated myself for years over it because it was such a huge mistake that I made, and it affected my life immensely.”

She owes 20,000 Canadian dollars to her bank for the line of credit she said she took out to invest in what he said was his business.

Many victims are too ashamed to report their losses, so the current data is most likely an undercount, said Jeff Horncastle, a spokesman at the Anti-Fraud Centre, which is in North Bay, Ontario. Less than 5 percent of victims, per its estimates, report frauds to the organization, operated jointly by the Ontario Provincial Police, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Competition Bureau.

The figures are staggering: Just over a thousand victims lost $27.8 million in 2020 to romance scams, 1,391 victims lost $64.2 million in 2021 and 1,056 victims lost $59 million in 2022.

[From the archives (2019): Happy Valentine’s Day! Online Dating Scams Cost Americans $143 Million]

The real name of the man Ms. Todd said defrauded her is Jon Mulder. Mr. Mulder is facing accusations from several women and related charges including fraud. A decade ago, he was convicted of fraud in other online dating scams, according to CTV Toronto. The broadcaster spoke to several women who dated Mr. Mulder and found each other on social media.

“Fraudsters prey on our emotions and vulnerabilities,” Mr. Horncastle said. The center is seeing increased reports of fraudsters sending “Hey, how are you?” messages to random phone numbers to strike up a conversation with a potential target, even if the receiver acknowledges the person has the wrong number. Sometimes, that message is all it takes.

He offers some tips to stay vigilant, such as never accepting Facebook friend requests from people you don’t know and never clicking links from emails you don’t recognize, though they may look legitimate at a first glance.

Scammers tend to give special attention to seniors. In one recent case reported by CTV Calgary, a 68-year-old widow from Ontario lost about $800,000, her life’s savings, in a romance scam and had to relocate to Calgary to be closer to her son.

[Read: Retirees Are Losing Their Life Savings to Romance Scams. Here’s What to Know.]

“It’s so important for everyone to inform their family members or loved ones on new scams coming out or what techniques fraudsters are using,” Mr. Horncastle told me. “It can go a long way.”

Before the pandemic, most fraud cases that came across his desk involved rudimentary manipulation, said Matthew McGuire, an anti-money-laundering expert and co-founder of The AML Shop, a consulting firm in Toronto. But today’s fraudsters, be they romance or cryptocurrency scammers, have become more sophisticated, he said. They even coach victims with what to say at the bank counter to reduce suspicion.

It happened to Li Zheng. A fraudster who claimed to be with the Chinese consulate contacted her, accused her of money laundering and sent a fake arrest warrant to her home to pressure her to wire $69,000 dollars through the Bank of China in Canada. Transactions over $10,000 send reports to the Canada’s financial intelligence agency, and an internal compliance officer at the bank asked Ms. Zheng about her relationship to the recipient. She didn’t respond but “looked worried and stressed,” according to a court decision.

The bank went ahead with the transfer. She only realized it was a ruse after reading news reports about this type of fraud.

Last month, the British Columbia Court of Appeal allowed Ms. Zheng’s lawsuit against the Bank of China (Canada) to proceed, ruling that, because the bank may have been aware of a fraud scheme but failed to warn its customer, the suit should go to trial.

A judgment against the bank “could really create a different story in Canada in terms of liabilities,” Mr. McGuire told me, adding that it could spell a shift from some of the reluctance “to dig deeper with questions at the counter.”

Digging deeper can apply to victims, too, as Ms. Todd realized too late. She said she felt she had little reason to doubt Mr. Mulder’s story because his truck was emblazoned with the logo of what he said was his company, and she saw him work at a horse show.

“It’s such a horrible feeling,” she said. “To trust somebody again and to start dating again is almost impossible.”

Trans Canada

New housing being built in Oshawa, Ontario, near the Greenbelt.Credit…Brett Gundlock for The New York Times
  • Despite promises by Doug Ford’s government to protect conservation areas in Ontario’s Greenbelt, he has opened privately owned parts of it to developers for housing construction.

  • Mayor John Tory of Toronto resigned on Friday night after admitting to an affair with a former employee of his office.

  • New York City welcomed migrants, but officials now say the city is buckling under the strain of absorbing 42,000 people in need. The city is providing free tickets for buses to Canada even as Canada tries to tamp down on illegal crossings.

  • Two children in Laval, Quebec, died after a bus crashed into their day care.

  • The Canadian Center for Child Protection helped the Times reporters Michael H. Keller and Kate Conger analyze the spread of child sexual abuse imagery on Twitter.

  • “For me I get this brain fog looking at screens all the time, so when I do the ice plunge it completely clears away the stress and anxiety,” said Alex Kerkhoff, 30, who works for a tech company in Montreal. For the Style section, Alyson Krueger spoke to people who use cold plunges to weather the winter.

  • By prominently featuring the faces of women in her colorful textile works, Hangama Amiri, an Afghan-Canadian artist who fled the Taliban as a child, is subverting their rules that suppress women. Her art is on display at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, Conn.

Vjosa Isai is a reporter-researcher for The New York Times in Canada. Follow her on Twitter at @lavjosa.

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