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Online romance turns sour as Victoria victim loses $88,000 in scam

Laura Leyshon/The Globe and Mail

A Victoria resident who sent $88,000 to an overseas love interest is the latest victim of an online romance scam, financial crimes detectives say.

The incident was reported to police after the person who sent the money lost contact with the scammer and became suspicious, says Victoria Constable Mike Russell. He said Tuesday the victim is in his or her 60s, though he wouldn't reveal the person's gender.

So far in 2013, Canadians have lost more than $13-million through romance scams – a 20-fold increase since 2008, according to statistics from the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre.

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British Columbia accounted for more than $1-million of the loss, 62 times higher than in 2008. The Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre reported that only around five per cent of scam victims report the incident to the police.

"[Scammers] prey on peoples' emotions," said Const. Russell. "[Victims] believe they are helping out by sending the money."

The $88,000 was traced to Malaysia and Nigeria before it disappeared. Insurance will not cover the victim's loss, Const. Russell said. Once the money leaves the country there is little police can do to get it back.

"When the money's gone out of the country it's gone," said Const. Russell. "That's the unfortunate part."

The Victoria resident met the scammer through an online dating service and the relationship continued for several months. Contact included Skype calls, phone calls and online messaging services, the officer said.

Bank staff had attempted to deter the victim from sending the funds overseas.

Const. Russell said in the last six months, three Victoria residents have been taken for over $138,000 in such scams and he suspects there are more people that have yet to come forward.

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"It's not that [scams] are originating on one dating website specifically," Const. Russell said. "It's affecting lots of different websites, using lots of different tools to communicate."

Being aware of red flags when using online dating services is critical, cautioned Const. Russell.

Emma Koehle, 25, met her fiancé two years ago on the Vancouver-based dating website Plenty of Fish. Ms. Koehle said she encountered several deceptive people while using online dating, although she was never scammed for money.

"I had a rule that if the guy wasn't willing to meet up in a public place within a week of us talking, I wasn't going to let it keep going," said Ms. Koehle. "If they weren't willing to meet within a week, they probably weren't who they said they were."

"We're really trying to get people to be aware of it, and to recognize some warning signs," Const. Russell said. "Don't give out your personal information, your money, things like that – that is really important to remember."

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