She didn’t have the money but wanted to help the man she loved, so she took out a $20,000 loan and wired the money to a bank account in Dubai.
Two weeks later, the Vancouver single mom learned the man with whom she had hoped to share her future did not exist and that she had fallen prey to a romance scam.
“I was very naive,” said “Sarah,” whose real name The Province is not using to protect her family and career. “I thought everyone was honest and looking for a relationship.”
Sarah is one of thousands of Canadians fleeced by online scammers who steal their hearts and then their money.
The 49-year-old teacher met what she thought was her Prince Charming in August on the online dating site Match.com. His profile said he was Donald Andrews, 54 and a single dad from North Vancouver.
Sarah said the handsome engineer seemed well-educated and family-oriented, with a stable career.
The pair communicated via email, then by daily phone conversations. They weren’t able to meet in person, he said, because he had to fly to the United Arab Emirates for three months to install a power plant.
Sarah started developing feelings for him. He, too, said he was falling for her. “I thought I was in love with him,” she said. “I thought I had found the right person after searching for so long. He was a gift.”
Things changed after Sarah told him she was in love with him; that’s when the scammer made his move. He asked to borrow $20,000, claiming he had run out of funds and needed to pay his workers.
Sarah told him to ask his family or relatives, but he said he had none. He also claimed his assets were frozen from a nasty divorce.
“I was begging him to find other resources,” recalled Sarah. “I couldn’t spare that money, but he knew exactly what to do.”
At her request, he sent her “proof,” including copies of his alleged work contract and return plane ticket to Vancouver. He cried on the phone. He promised to repay her in November and made her feel guilty for doubting him.
On Oct. 31, Sarah succumbed, taking out a $20,000 loan and wiring the money to Dubai.
Afterwards, the seeds of suspicion planted in her mind, Sarah began pressing him harder, asking for a recent photo at his job site. But “he kept saying our love was enough, that I didn’t need proof.”
Later, he asked her to wire $3,000 to Nigeria to cover hotel costs — another red flag. Later, she discovered his love letters to her were copied from an online website.
In December, she reported the incident to authorities.
“I was crying lots. I was heartbroken, and angry at him for misusing me and my child,” said Sarah, who is sharing her story so others can learn from her mistake.
In 2014, nearly 1,000 Canadians lost more than $13.8 million to romance scams, one of the most lucrative scams in Canada, according to the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre. The average dollar loss per victim was just over $14,000.
Since 2010, victims have lost more than $66 million.
Most victims were in their 50s, followed by people in their 60s. Females were more likely to be victimized than men.
Catherine Ludgate, who hosts fraud prevention workshops for Vancity credit union, said romance scams work well because they play on emotion, not reason.
“It’s not that (victims) are gullible or naive,” she said. “We all want to believe in the power of love and hope for loving relationships in our lives.”
The scammers are pros who’ll work quickly to build an intimate relationship with a mark, relying on the intoxication of an early-stage romance to prey on the victim.
She said the thieves are usually overseas and are difficult to track down and prosecute.
Sarah said she had been told by police that the scammer, who does not live in Canada, was untraceable. Her money is likely lost for good. Match.com said it was looking into the incident.
In hindsight, there were many warning signs, said Sarah. But she was naive and blinded, almost brainwashed: “You think you’re in love. My mind got a little dreamy, and I wasn’t altogether there. The clarity wasn’t there.”
Some tips on protecting yourself from a romance scam:
• Do not send money or give personal information to anyone you don’t know and trust.
• Think twice about sending money to someone you have only recently met online and haven’t met in person.
• Be wary if someone asks for too much personal information too soon, or asks for money early in a relationship.
• Try verifying someone is who they say they are by looking for an online footprint. Look them up on social media, or through Google to see what pops up. This is not foolproof, as some scammers set up entire false websites or profiles.
• Cut and paste part of their online profile on Google to see what else pops up. Many scammers steal profiles from other sites.
• Seeking a second opinion from a friend or relative can be helpful.