An increasing number of Edmontonians are falling prey to a heartbreaking new trend in Internet crime — romantic fraud.
It's important that those looking for love protect their hearts and their wallets, says Linda Herczeg a detective with the Economic Crimes Section of the Edmonton Police Service.
"We find the offenders are typically bullies, they're narcissistic, they've got borderline personalities, or they're sociopaths," Herczeg said in an interview with CBC Radio's Edmonton AM. "They look for people that like to please, that are trusting, that are non confrontational.
RCMP say 748 people across Canada lost more than $17 million to online dating scams in 2016, up from $16.7 million in 2015.
In Edmonton, city police investigated two high-profile cases in the past year. One of the local victims lost more than $50,000, the second more than $90,000.
However, Herczeg believes the true numbers are likely much higher.
Many victims are reluctant to report the crimes, either out of embarrassment and shame or — in the case of elderly people — fear they will lose their independence as concerned family members intervene.
'The financial debt can be overwhelming'
"There are huge effects, emotionally, mentally and financially," said Herczeg who notes it's common for victims to lose their entire life savings to these con artists.
"A lot of people get to the point where they are so stressed and depressed they don't know to admit they've fallen prey to this … they end up taking out loans or running credit cards, so the financial debt can be overwhelming."
Of all the frauds that use romance as a pawn, "catfishing" is the most common, said Herczeg.
In these cases, the con artist uses a fake identity to charm victims into an online relationship and soon after, begins asking for large sums of money. They use fake profiles, and usually come up with elaborate excuses as to why they can never meet in person.
'They know how to read you'
Some red flags to watch for include someone professing their love before meeting in person, or claiming to be from the same town but working overseas, said Herczeg.
"They profile you. They ask questions to see where you are and gauge you as a person. And they know how to read you," said Herczeg.
"It's very tragic."
The simple way to protect yourself, said Herczeg, is to never send any money to people you've met online. She also urges for victims to report any suspicious or fradulent activity to Edmonton police.
"We don't want you to be paranoid and we don't want you to be fearful," said Herczeg.
"Lots of people have found wonderful relationships online but you need to watch for key things in their profile."