When a handsome stranger started chatting with Cindy Browne on TikTok, she was intrigued.
They quickly courted WhatsApp and bonded over their shared love difficulty: He told her his wife had died of cancer. She told him that her first husband had also passed away and that she had recently found out that her second husband was cheating on her.
“[He] WhatsApp messaged me every day, so kindly speaking,” Browne said.
“I fell in love with him.”
Less than a year later, Browne says the man she thought she was building her life with had scammed her out of about $26,000 in a type of scheme that the Canadian Anti-Fraud Center says is on the rise.
In a statement, Toronto police confirmed they were investigating and said “unfortunately, this type of crime is not uncommon.”
“Drastic” increase in romance scams
Jeff Horncastle, unit supervisor at the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre, agrees.
“It’s a story we hear far, far too often,” said Horncastle, who noted that romance scams have seen a “drastic” increase in recent years.
In 2020, the fraud center had a reported loss of nearly $28 million from romance scams in Canada. In 2021, that number has more than doubled to more than $64 million – although Horncastle thinks that may be an underestimate, as people are often hesitant to report this type of crime. Last year, romance scams accounted for the second highest amount of dollars lost to fraud in Canada, the center said.
Horncastle said some warning signs that may indicate a potential scam include:
- A social network or dating profile that seems too good to be true.
- If the person confesses their love quickly, without having met in person.
- They want to quickly switch to a private form of communication, such as email or text.
- They always have excuses not to meet in person.
- They encourage you to avoid talking about your relationship with friends or family.
- Their messages are poorly written, or they call you by the wrong name.
Browne’s alleged lover was named Fabian and said he was a pilot based in Jordan. About two months after they started chatting, he asked for her clothing size and said he planned to send gifts from his trips to Europe.
Fabian told her that she would have to pay a fee to have the presents delivered.
“I thought the fee was going to cost me about $30 or $20 or $100 or something like that,” she said.
But when she received a call from someone claiming to be from a courier company holding the freebies, Browne was told the fee would cost $1,500.
When she asked Fabian about it, he told her there was $150,000 inside the gift.
Shocked, Browne asked him why and told him he had “fallen in love with me and then we’re going to move to Canada”.
Browne was uncertain. Still, she did as she was told and sent the $1,500 using a nearby BitCoin ATM.
But it didn’t stop there. The company kept asking for more money – and threatening legal trouble if she didn’t pay. She even dipped into the funds she had saved to fly to Singapore to visit her mother’s grave.
Horncastle noted that the crooks are not amateurs; they will pay a lot of attention to building a character that their victims will find appealing.
“These criminals unfortunately know exactly what these people want to hear,” he said.
“They know how to manipulate them, they know how to play with their emotions, and unfortunately that’s why they can make so much money out of these victims.”
“I never thought it wasn’t real”
At one point, Browne said she asked Fabian why he didn’t pay the fee since he was a pilot.
“Fabian told me: because Qatar Airlines owns his account,” she said. “And then I never [thought] it wasn’t real.”
Eventually, Browne had drained his savings and was considering selling his car to get more money.
The situation finally came to an end when Browne, who runs a car wash, was visibly distraught at work. A police officer who was a regular customer asked her what was wrong, and when she described the situation, he urged her to report it.
“The officer called me five days later, and then they said, ‘You’ve been scammed,'” she said.
At the time, Browne did not confide in friends or family about what was going on.
Now she wants to share her story to warn others about the risk of romance scams.
“Just be careful when you don’t know the person, you never meet them and they start falling[ing] in love with you,” she said.
When it comes to protecting yourself online, Horncastle said:
- Be careful about the personal information you share.
- Avoid sharing intimate photos online.
- Don’t accept friend requests from people you don’t know.
- Do not invest money in platforms provided by people you do not know.
Above all, said Horncastle, never send money to anyone you haven’t met. Browne agreed.
“It already happened to me.” she said.