Every year, thousands of Canadians are giving away millions of dollars in what has been declared the highest form of fraud in the country: ‘romance scams.’ This weekend’s episode of CTV’s W5 dives into who is behind these online crimes and how they’re doing it.
Investigative Correspondent Avery Haines started with the story of a Canadian woman whose online romance turned tragic. Colleen was a 59-year-old woman living in British Columbia and, after leaving her long-term relationship, lost a lot of weight. She was feeling good about herself and started online dating. She met a man named Ryan and the relationship lasted two years. Ryan claimed to work at an oil rig and was paid in cash in a box that needed to be shipped from Turkey. He asked Colleen if she could just send this money to get the box delivered to her. It went so far that she was bombarded by actors pretending to be ppolice who convinced her she broke the law. She sent Ryan almost one-million dollars. She died by suicide and left a three-page note saying she was too old to go to jail.
“Ryan” was part of The Black Axe, a sophisticated organization that runs all over the world.
Avery dropped by The Social to explain this scam and how it could affect more Canadians.
WHAT IS A ROMANCE SCAM?
A romance scam is when someone falls in love online and they’re manipulated into sending their love interest money. They will meet them on social media (usually Instagram or Facebook), or a dating app, and conjure up a romantic relationship with them. The victim will be so in love that they will send the person thousands, and sometimes millions, of dollars.
Romance scams cost Canadians more than $22.5-million in 2018, and more than 15,000 Canadians reported these scams—but the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre believes that only about five per cent of victims are actually filing reports. According to the CAFC, ‘romance scams’ is the highest fraud in this country.
WHO ARE THE PERPETRATORS?
Most people are by now familiar with catfishing, and many believe that there’s only one man behind the computer in Nigeria behind these scams. The truth is, it’s a global crime organization in 26 countries including Canada. The Black Axe is the main culprit and it was developed in Nigeria in the ’70s, however they have grown to a sophisticated organization run all over the world. Vulnerable people are being targeted all day by hundreds of men and women, who are able to convince people and make them believe they’re real.
HOW CONVINCING ARE THEY?
There are a number of ways perpetrators can convince someone they’ve never met in person to give them money. The perpetrator with always pose as someone with a career that won’t’ allow them to video chat or talk on the phone—these careers are usually in the military or an oil rig. Depending on how much money scammers can earn, sometimes there can be 10-11 scammers assigned to the same victim.
This is how it works: Someone in a low position in the organization will pay close attention to the targeted victim. They will constantly send messages from morning through to night. These messages consist of confirmation of love, compliments and deep conversations they couldn’t get anywhere else. The perpetrator will then ask the victim for small amount of money – maybe 500 dollars. The members of organizations like ‘The Black Axe’ are trained to follow a script and use the same language so that the victim believes they are still talking to the same person. As conversations continue, the perpetrator will find a reason to get a larger amount of money.
For example, they could say that the government needs 15, 000 dollars in order for them to be relieved of their duties to leave the military and will tell them that once they get the money, their life together can begin. The money always has to be wired. Once it’s wired, the perpetrator will move the victim up to another member in a higher tier. Each time they pass a tier, it will continue to get more elaborate that can involve actors who will pose as CEO’s, immigration officers, military, lawyers, etc. Sometimes, the victim will be made to meet someone in person pretending to be related to the fake person.
HOW ARE VICTIMS CHOSEN?
There is a specific criteria that victims require for an organization decided to target. They typically target women in their 50s and 60. Widows who are in a vulnerable state are also large targets along with people who are not up to date with media or technology. They look for vulnerable victims but it doesn’t mean they are uneducated. Haines interviewed a woman with a PHD and was working for UN who was duped and gave more than $600,000 to The Black Axe.
WHAT CAN BE DONE?
Unfortunately, you’ll never get your money back, Haines says. If you think you’re the victim of romance fraud, the RCMP and CAFC urge you to stop all contact with your alleged scammer, contact your financial institution to halt any outstanding payments, report the situation to your local police with as much information as possible and also file a report with the CAFC through their confidential online reporting system.
Watch more about this investigation on W5’s episode, The Invisible Man, on Saturday at 7 p.m. ET on CTV.