The dating world is a minefield at the best of times but the Internet has added fresh risks, and not just of a broken heart.
As a higher percentage of people use the web to find relationships, online-dating scams have become the No. 1 source of fraud against Canadians, CBC News reports.
According to the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre, online-dating fraud cost Canadians $17 million last year. And even though the total number of victims is small compared with other scams, in the last three years they lost more money looking for love online than to any other type of fraud.
It's also become big business. Your old-school gigolo or gold-digger usually could only drain a couple of people at a time. But the centre's Daniel Williams said organized crime has latched onto online dating as a lucrative source of cash.
"It's a big gang," he told CBC News. "They're doing the same thing to many people at the same time."
The advantage of the web, of course, is that the fraudster never has to meet his or her mark, though Williams said they will if the payoff is rich enough. Otherwise, they can tailor their online personas to meet the expectations of the victim and may wait months before introducing the subject of money, he told CBC News.
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"They can afford to have the money come in many months later because there's a stream of money coming in all the time," said Williams.
Even if the fraud is discovered, there's little likelihood of getting your money back and prosecution is difficult if the scam is based abroad.
Besides gang-based operations, small-time scammers still lurk in the online dating world.
After several dates, the women say he charmed them into cashing personal cheques for him, which later bounced. Liz Charyna lost $400 and Lisa Dwyer $2,700. The two women knew each other and were unaware they were seeing the same guy.
“He really came across as somebody who has a good job; he mentioned that he was a site supervisor for construction, plus he had a renovation business on the side,” Charyna told CTV News. “He seemed legitimate.”
The two women didn't realize they'd been scammed by the same man until they discussed online dating at the gym.
“I need to warn you of this man that I just met,” Charyna told Dwyer.
“Oh, I just met him,” Dwyer replied.
She started a blog to alert other women and told CTV News she's received emails from several other victims, many too embarrassed to report the fraud.
“When something like this happens to you, you just feel sick,” Charyna said. “If you just stay silent, that’s where he has his power.”
Both women have made official complaints to police. A man with the same name as the one they dated has a long criminal record, including fraud, CTV News said.
Ontario Provincial Police were investigating a claim that a Huron County woman was conned out of $32,000 by a man she met through an online-dating site, the Huron Bullet News reported last March.
The woman and her new friend communicated online for several months, with the fraudster sending her fake photos. Once she was hooked, he asked for money, telling her he was having customs problems while travelling in Russia and China. She wired a total of $32,000 in multiple transactions, the News said.
Sometimes the scammers don't even bother appealing to love. The Canadian Press reported in June that Victoria police were warning that someone was using dating sites for what sounds like a variation of the Nigerian-letter scam.
Const. Michael Russell said victims are offered a share of profits or other benefits if they send money overseas to help their online friend with shipping and storing a large quantity of gold, CP said.
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One victim paid as much as $50,000 before the fraud was discovered, Russell said.
Police and the anti-fraud centre say there are ways to protect yourself against online-dating scams, especially the ones sourced outside your community.
"If you can't get that person to meet face to face, if you start to get excuses as to why that can't happen, I think that should be a bit of a red flag,” Staff Sgt. Stephanie Burns of the Ottawa police anti-fraud section told CBC News.
“If the person starts talking about money issues inappropriately early in the relationship, I think that should be an indicator perhaps this person’s motives aren't what yours are.”
Williams said organized fraud groups often use templates for their messages, which sometimes can be found via Internet searches. An example can be seen on RomanceScam.com, CBC News noted.
Ontario's Ministry of Consumer Services, among other places, offers hints on how spot potential online dating scams.