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But I Love You……Send Me the Money! Romance Scams Involving Adults In-Later-Life

Background on Dating and Romance Scams

The Toronto Police Service have identified that romance scams targeting the elderly occur when an online relationship begins, usually through a dating or social media site. The fraudster, who is often from another country, declares their love, often offering to visit the senior or vice versa. At some point, the fraudster asks for money. A request to cover medical bills for themselves or a family matter is often the reason used. TPS reports that it is rare for the fraudster and the victim to actually meet in person, unless the scam takes place at the local level.[1]

According to the Competition Bureau of Canada, on dating sites, scammers “after they have sent a few messages, and maybe even a glamorous photo, will be asked (directly or more subtly) to send money to help their situation … Some scammers even arrange to meet, in the hopes that they can procure presents or money – and then they disappear.”[2]

By the Numbers: Canada and the USA

In February 2022, the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre released a fraud alert for romance scams. Based on fraud reports to the CAFC, romance scams were responsible for the second highest amount of fraud-related dollar loss is 2021 (investment scams were the highest). The CAFC reported that scammers are using advanced methods to appear legitimate and trick people into trusting them. The CAFC also reports “an increase in the number of cryptocurrency investment scams linked to romance scams. These occur when the person you are in a virtual relationship with tries to get you to invest in a cryptocurrency and will end up stealing your money or personal information.”[3] In 2021, the CAFC received more than 1,300 romance fraud complaints from victims who reported combined losses of $43 million. The CAFC also provided some standard red flags to look out for.[4] In 2018, 760 victims of romance scams in Canada reported losses of more than $22.5 million dollars, surpassing all other types of fraud in that year.

In the United States of America, a recent FBI alert reports that victims to romance scams lost over $1 billion dollars in 2021. What’s more, romance scams reported to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) rose 80% in 2021 – victims lost approximately $547 million dollars. Emma Fletcher, analyst with the FTC told USA today, “the bottom line is most consumers are not reporting fraud when it happens and romance scams may be particularly unlikely to be reported because there can be a lot of embarrassment around it.”[5] The FTC reports that individuals 70-years-old and older experience the highest losses; nearly $9,000/case compared to 18 to 29-year-olds who experience on average a loss of $750/case. The largest losses come from payments made in cryptocurrency which equalled approximately $139 million in losses in 2021.

Sha Zhu Pan – the ‘Butchering the Pig’ Scam

This is a highly sophisticated romance and cryptocurrency investment scam. According to Carlo Handy Charles, the scammers are mainly working for Chinese organized crime gangs who pose as attractive professionals or entrepreneurs looking for true love. Charles reports that they “use dating apps, including Tinder, Grindr and Hinge, as well as social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram to match with their potential victims.”[6] The scammers then use a combination of fake social media profiles and psychological manipulation. Charles reports “they slowly gain victims’ trust by using their personal information on social media against them to play the role of their dream romantic partner. They also shower their victims with messages of love and affection day and night.”[7] According to the Global Anti-Scam Organization, criminals call this stage the ‘fattening up or raising of the pig’ before slaughtering it. “Contrary to more traditional romance scams, scammers manage to convince their victims that they are not interested in their money or personal banking information. Instead, they want to build a bright economic future with their soulmate by investing in cryptocurrency together as a couple.” Once the victim lets their guard down, they are convinced to invest increasing amounts of money. Victims have emptied out their bank accounts, spent inheritances and life savings, taken out loans and mortgages, and sold houses and cars to invest in fake crypto currency platforms

Recent and Noteworthy Cases

On March 17, 2022, a 34-year-old Mississauga man who was accused of romance scams targeting seniors was arrested and charged with six counts of fraud. In 2019, after an Oakville resident reported handing over around $70,000, an investigation began. Halton Regional Police investigators allege that Toju Ariri, using different aliases such as Dante Leonardo, Sean Bruno, and Jason Roberto “would initiate and maintain contact with his victims through email and text, establish trust through this remote relationship, and convince them to transfer funds.”[8] Ariri bilked his victims out of $370,000.

In February of 2022, Norfolk County OPP reported that a victim contacted police to report that she had been defrauded of $200,000 in a romance scam.[9]

In April 2022, the Lillooet B.C. RCMP detachment reported that a woman contacted them on April 7 to report that she had been a victim of a romance scam. She traveled to South Africa in 2021 to meet a man she said appeared to be wealthy and well-connected. She returned to Canada with plans to have him join her, however, soon, “the man began asking the woman to send him money for various expenses, including plane tickets and diamonds.”[10] Over the next 3 months, she sent $23,000 to the man, who continued to delay his plans. When she refused to send more money, the relationship ended.

In 2021, a multi-organizational task force completed a two-year “lengthy and complex investigation”[11] on a 35-year-old Etobicoke man who swindled 21 romance scam victims. The investigation started after a Prescott, Ontario woman contacted police in October 2019 reporting that she had lost $50,000 to a man she met on social media. A second and larger investigation was undertaken by an Ottawa unit of the OPP anti-rackets branch, the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre and the Financial Transactions and Reports Analysis Centre of Canada. The accused, Nosa Soloman Oriakhi, is charged with multiple offences under the federal criminal code.[12]

In July 2021, a Huron County senior lost $700,000 to a romance scam. In that case, the victim’s daughter reported the crime. The early investigation revealed that someone claimed to be a surgeon working for the United Nations and at one point used a ruse that he had been abducted by a terrorist entity and to procure money to pay off his ransom. Money was also used to help with surgeries, medical treatment, international flights, and other emergencies.[13]

In 2019, a senior named Margaret (last named withheld), 75-years-old and lonely after the death of her husband, joined dating site match.com. She entered an 11-month online relationship but ended up getting scammed to the tune of $140,000.[14]

Finally, in 2015, Barbara, a 76-year-old senior from B.C. entered an online dating relationship on Christian Mingle with a man who claimed to be a German engineer working on an oil rig project in Gulf of Mexico. They spoke over the phone and exchanged 100 romantic emails a day. He told Barbara he was a widower as well and that his wife died three years ago. He nursed her until she died. He was supporting a 10-year-old granddaughter after his daughter was killed in a motor vehicle accident. She began by giving him $18,000 but the amounts added up quickly. He told her he needed the money to start his oil company and that once the first project was completed, he would have access to $3.5 million. Once the money was transferred, his plans changed, and Barbara contacted the RCMP.

A Snapshot of Perpetrators

In November 2021, Toronto Police charged Aleth Duell, a 69-year-old woman with fraud over $5,000 and money laundering. According to police, the investigation found that she targeted several women online by posing as a man and striking up friendships or romantic relationships over dating websites and social media. Duell is alleged to have bilked her victims out of several millions of dollars.[15]

In September 2021, a victim was defrauded of more than $150,000 after a romantic relationship began online between a senior and the man, they believed was a retired Canadian Army Sergeant. A 21-year-old Oakville woman, a 38-year-old London woman, and three Toronto men, aged 36, 35, and 28, were all arrested and charged with fraud.[16]

[1] Toronto Police Service, “Romance Scam” 2022, online: http://www.torontopolice.on.ca/crimeprevention/.

[2] Competition Bureau of Canada, “The Little Black Book of Scams: Your Guide to Protection Against Fraud” 2012, online: https://www.competitionbureau.gc.ca/eic/site/cb-bc.nsf/eng/04333.html.

[3] Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre, “Fraud Alert – Romance Scams” February 2022, online: https://www.anti-fraudecentre-centreantifraude.ca/scams-fraudes/romance-recontre-eng.htm.

[4] Someone you haven’t met that professes their love to you; someone that wants to quickly move to a private or different mode of communication (email, text, Whatsapp, Google, Hangouts, etc.); someone who always has an excuse not to meet in person; poorly or oddly written messages – wrong names; someone claiming to live near you but is always working overseas; someone who acts distressed or angry to guilt you into sending them money; someone who discourages you from discussing them or their situation with your friends or family members (these are attempts to isolate their victim from support).

[5] Mike Snider, “Online Dating scams are on the rise, FBI and FTC warn. Here are some red flags.” February 16, 2022, USA Today, online: https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2022/02/16/romance-scams-rise-cost-americans-millions-fbi-ftc/6797616001/.

[6] Carlo Handy Charles, “Analysis: Organized crime has infiltrated online dating with sophisticated ‘pig-butchering’ scams” March 2, 2022, McMaster University Brighter World Research, online: https://brighterworld.mcmaster.ca/articles/analysis-organized-crime-has-infiltrated-online-dating-with-sophisticated-pig-butchering-scams/.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Nick Westoll, “Mississauga man charged with fraud in alleged romance scams, victims out $370k: police” March 17, 2022, CityNews, online: https://toronto.citynews.ca/2022/04/08/romance-scam-halton-regional-police/.

[9] CBC News, “Norfolk resident lost more than $200k through an online relationship scam, police say” February 28, 2022, online: https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/hamilton/romance-scam-two-hundred-thousand-norfolk-opp-1.6366867.

[10] Sydney Chisholm, “Lillooet woman swindled out of $23k by former romantic partner” April 14, 2022, Castanet News, online: https://www.castanetkamloops.net/news/Kamloops/366088/Lillooet-woman-swindled-out-of-23K-by-former-romantic-partner/.

[11] Michael Woods, “Romance scam fraudster had more than 20 victims: Ontario police” November 16, 2021, CTV News, online: https://ottawa.ctvnews.ca/romance-scam-fraudster-had-more-than-20-victims-ontario-police-1.5668709.

[12] Fraud over $5,000; Failing to comply with a release order; Transmitting identity information; Identity Theft (five counts); Possession of Credit Card data (18 counts); Possession of a Credit Card (9 counts); and possession of an identity document (6 counts).

[13] CBC News, “Romance scam bilked Huron County senior out of $750k” July 15, 2021, online: https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/london/huron-county-romance-scam-senior/.

[14] Shea O’Shea, “Romance scam costs Ontario senior $140k” January 1, 2019, Global News, online: https://globalnews.ca/news/4806823/romance-scam-ontario-senior/.

[15] Joshua Freeman, “Woman, 69, charged in illegal romance scam that duped women out of millions: Toronto police” November 19, 2021, CP24 News, online: https://www.cp24.com/news/woman-69-charged-in-alleged-romance-scam-that-duped-women-out-of-millions-toronto-police-1.5673326.

[16] Shayla Vize, “5 people arrested after victim defrauded of $150k in romance scam” September 17, 2021, CHCH News, online: https://www.chch.com/5-people-arrested-after-victim-defrauded-of-150k-in-romance-scam/.


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