'Like a punch in the stomach': Two Montreal women lose thousands in alleged romance fraud
Marie got a phone call from her landlord in early March, saying a woman was at her apartment. She was looking for a man who owed her a lot of money.
Racing back to her Montreal home, she came face to face with Danielle, a woman she had never met, who came with a bombshell revelation.
The man Marie had been seeing on and off for eight years had apparently been in a relationship with Danielle for months.
"It was like a punch in the stomach," said Marie, 40.
The two women, who spoke to CTV on the basis of anonymity, say the man swindled them both out of a small fortune, leaving them emotionally drained and drowning in debt.
"She and I get to talking only to find out that we have the exact same story. The money that he's asked me, he would ask the same amount from her," said Marie.
For Marie, it all started on a dating app called Badoo, where she matched with a man who said he was from Belgium—a 37-year-old sports management professional in Montreal on business.
The two began seeing each other around his supposed jet-set lifestyle. Until one day, he asked for money for a plane ticket to visit her.
Marie said she lent him $600 for a flight with the promise she would be paid back.
But Marie didn't see a dime of that money, and the requests kept coming, claiming issues with travel or his Canadian work permit, she said.
From frozen bank accounts to being stuck at the border, to battling cancer and needing money for treatment abroad, she said it was a never-ending saga that promised to end with just one more e-transfer.
"I've always had my red flags, but he was just always good at coming up with an excuse," she said.
Over the years, Marie estimates she sent him at least $50,000.
Danielle, 33, said the man fed her the same stories during their months-long relationship, which started with a Tinder match in the fall of 2021.
As requests for money continued and her questions about repayment went unanswered, Danielle's suspicions reached a breaking point.
That's when she paid a visit to the apartment where he had taken her several times, only to find out he didn't live there—Marie did. She had given him a spare key.
Danielle estimates she lost $200,000 and is still paying back loans she took out to help the man she thought she knew.
While both women say they had their suspicions, it didn't fit the typical 'Tinder Swindler' scenario they were familiar with.
Romance scams typically see a scammer convince a victim to enter a virtual relationship and build trust before asking for money or investments, according to the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre (CAFC).
In 2021, the CAFC received nearly 2,000 reports of romance scams totalling over $64 million in losses.
That's a significant spike from the year prior, which saw about 1,500 reports and $28 million in losses.
However, it wasn't just an online relationship for Danielle and Marie.
"He's met my family. He's met some of my friends," said Marie. "He really immersed himself into my life as if he was really in a relationship with me."
"It's not like he just took my money and ran away," said Danielle. "He kept doing gestures that made it seem legit."
The two women have filed police reports with Montreal police (SPVM) and the RCMP.
Montreal police say it's under investigation, but what can be done is unclear, since the money was given voluntarily.
It's the same response Danielle received from her bank when she tried to recoup her losses that way.
"I'm losing hope," she said.
Danielle says she's been in touch with a lawyer, who said the matter would need to go to civil court because it does not meet the criteria for fraud in Canada's Criminal Code.
But with her bank accounts already depleted, the costly option of going to court may be out of the question, she said.
TURNING TO TECHNOLOGY
Cases of romance fraud rose during the pandemic as people experienced loneliness during lockdowns, said expert Lynsay Shepherd, adding older women are predominately targeted.
Shepherd, a lecturer in cybersecurity and human-computer interaction at Scotland's Abertay University, said law enforcement's response to romance scams tends to focus on raising awareness, but "if you're already kind of caught up in a scam, you're not going to pay attention to these signals," she said.
Shepherd is the lead researcher of "Broken Hearts, Empty Accounts," a project that involves a tool to detect scammers who use online dating platforms to defraud people.
"It uses machine learning to try and flag up cues in conversations that you might be having with a scammer and to try and alert you that you're potentially going to lose money here," said Shepherd.
Beyond blatant red flags such as requests for money, the tool detects more nuanced messages that have a sense of urgency, she said.
The tool is still in development, but the goal is to see it used on dating apps and platforms like WhatsApp.
The CAFC offers several red flags to look out for when talking to someone new online.
Hints that online conversation may lead to a romance scam include the following:
- When someone you haven't met in person professes their love to you
- If the person wants to quickly move to a private or different mode of communication (email, text, Whatsapp, Google Hangouts etc.)
- If the person always has an excuse not to meet in person
- If you receive poorly/oddly written messages, sometimes even addressing you by the wrong name
- If the person claims to live close to you but is working overseas
Suspected scams or cases of fraud can be submitted to the CAFC. If you're being threatened, you're advised to contact police.