As social distancing separates people from their friends and family, Albertans are increasingly looking online for companionship and conversation.
And scammers are taking advantage of the situation, warns a detective with the Edmonton Police Service.
Fraudsters are opportunistic criminals and the COVID-19 pandemic has made it easier for criminals to extract money and personal information from their victims, Det. Linda Herczeg said Wednesday.
Scammers, who often use sick family members as an excuse to plead for money, now have a new reason for never meeting their victims face-to-face.
"The coronavirus is not just necessarily the medical piece," said Herczeg. "People are pulling that excuse into not meeting people. 'Honey, I love you but I can't meet you because I am self-isolating.' The believability of it becomes just a little more."
$1.7M lost to romance scams since Jan. 1
The increase in criminal activity is especially apparent in romance fraud, where con artists use internet dating sites to troll for victims, profess love, then use the relationship to dupe their mark out of money.
Since Jan. 1, Edmonton police have investigated 21 romance scams that have cost victims a total of $1.7 million, Herczeg said. That's about half of the total losses reported for romance scams in all of last year, she said.
The increase in romance scams linked to coronavirus seems to be happening around the world. Herczeg said she is hearing similar anecdotes from police colleagues working internationally.
Scammers often call and message their victims dozens of times each day, and lonely people are especially vulnerable, she said.
"You feel a part of something and you feel somebody cares," she said. "And that's why people fall victim to those types of scams."
Other scams related to the pandemic include online sales of sought-after items like hand-sanitizer and face masks, Herczeg said.
"They're going door to door, they're selling self-test kits. We have people who are buying up sanitizers and whatever they can get their hands on and then they're reselling it on online websites," she said in an interview with CBC Radio's Edmonton AM.
Don't fall for free face masks
"There's the free masks that you can get — they're sending through text or they're sending them through email with hyperlinks. Of course, the hyperlinks typically have malware behind them or they're phishing for your personal information so they can get into your banking."
One Edmontonian who reported such a scam lost about $240 trying to buy face masks from a fraudulent site, Herczeg said.
She stressed that if you are ever in doubt about a phone call or digital message, disconnect and seek verification. If you believe you have been scammed, report it to police.
Many people believe that scams are coming from overseas and don't bother reporting attempts to police but Herzceg said that's not the case.
"A lot of people dismiss them because they think they're overseas and there's nothing that the police can do about it, but a lot of them are domestic."