An Abbotsford woman is warning others about a “romance scam” that recently resulted in her elderly mom losing $270,000.
“Sandra,” who did not want her real name used, said her mom, “Rita,” cleared out her registered retirement savings plan (RRSP) and was ready to take out a loan on her home before her family discovered what was happening.
The matter has been reported to the Abbotsford Police Department (APD), but investigating officer Det. Daryl Young with the major crime unit said it’s too late for Rita (not her real name).
“The sad reality is the money is gone, and so we’re trying to take more of an educational stance now – trying to get the word out there that these things are scams,” he said.
The fraud against Rita, who is in her late 70s, began last December but her family didn’t find out about it until the end of March. That’s when they were able to put the pieces together.
Rita, who was widowed last year, was active on Facebook, often posting messages about grief and pictures of flowers.
When her account was first set up, Sandra ensured that her mom’s privacy settings were locked down, but at some point, they became wide open.
A man reached out to Rita through Facebook Messenger. He said he had seen her profile picture and that she looked like a lovely person and he would like to get to know her better.
The two began exchanging messages. The scammer, who went by the name “Dr. Eric Wilson,” said he was in his 50s and a U.S. neurosurgeon working in Syria. His profile photo was of a man in a white lab coat with a stethoscope.
He often sent Rita photos of flowers or of his morning coffee, and would use terms of endearment such as “my dear” and “my darling.”
Rita didn’t realize that all the images, including his profile picture, were stock photos that could be obtained anywhere online.
Eric told Rita that his life was in danger in Syria and he needed to get out. He told her he needed help applying for his vacation benefits, but there were taxes that had to be paid first. He insisted she keep the matter between the two of them because he could be “beheaded” if anyone found out he was trying to escape.
“You can’t tell anybody until I have the chance to be there with you. Then I’ll get to meet everybody,” he told her.
Eric urged Rita to wire-transfer money to him that was taken from her RRSP, and coached her on what she should say if bank staff were suspicious.
Three different banks turned her down, saying it appeared that Rita was being defrauded, and one severed all ties with her when Rita refused to believe them.
But she was eventually able to transfer various sums, the largest being $130,000, which she told the bank was for a down payment on a house in the U.S.
She also sent another large sum of $70,000, but was told that Eric needed that to be the equivalent in U.S. funds, resulting in Rita sending another $15,000.
On another occasion, she sent him $16,000 for a “plane ticket.” There were also several smaller amounts.
Rita’s family learned about the scam when she asked her son if she could borrow $25,000, saying she had fallen in love with someone and they were going to get married, but she needed the money to get him out of Syria.
Sandra said the family had to sit down with Rita and tell her that she had been scammed.
“She vehemently denied everything because she was in love with this man and he was coming and he going to pay everything back … She didn’t believe (it was a scam), and she was so angry with us,” Sandra said.
She said her mom was vulnerable because she is trusting of others, was lonely following the death of her husband and is not internet-savvy. Also, because she is an immigrant, she didn’t recognize the poor English being used in Eric’s messages, even though he claimed to be a U.S. citizen.
The family shut down all of Rita’s social media and banking accounts and changed her passwords.
Then, they went to police. Rita didn’t want to report anything, but, because Sandra had set up power of attorney with her parents several years ago, she was able to file a complaint on behalf of her mom.
It wasn’t until police informed Rita she had been scammed that she finally believed it.
Det. Young said there are many similarities between Rita’s case and others. He said the scammers usually belong to an organized crime group – often based in Africa – and find their victims through social media, mostly Facebook, but also on dating apps.
“They’ll often say they have a very important job, and they’re overseas, and they’re stuck for some reason. They’ll say they’re doctors, neurosurgeons or soldiers and they’re in areas where people are in conflict,” Young said.
They will often involve another person – in Rita’s case, she was instructed to send money to Eric’s “employer” – and the email address used will look legitimate.
Young said it’s almost impossible to catch the criminals.
“These files are so hard for us to trace backwards. It’s basically like a spiderweb. There’s a reason why these scams are so successful – they’re very good at hooking people and they’re also very good at insulating themselves,” he said.
The scammers will never participate in video chats or phone calls and often limit the time frame they have available for messaging – usually because they’re busy targeting several other people in a day, Young said.
He said another issue is that the victims, although they are unknowingly being duped, willingly part with their cash.
“Ultimately, we have freedom in Canada to do what we want with our money,” Young said.
He said Rita’s case is similar to others that have occurred in the U.S., and the APD’s major crime unit is working with the FBI in trying to find the perpetrators.
Meanwhile, Sandra said her mom is fortunate to still own her home, which she can sell to replace what she lost.
Sandra said she encourages others, if they have elderly parents, to regularly check on their social media privacy settings and, if they have power of attorney, to ensure the banks have that information. If that had been the case with Sandra, the banks would have called her on her mom’s first attempt to make a large wire transfer.
Anyone who has been the victim of a similar scam can contact their local police. People who haven’t been a victim but want to report a scam can call the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre (antifraudcentre.ca) at 1-888-495-8501.
FRAUD AWARENESS EVENT
The Abbotsford Police Department, in partnership with Archway Community Services, is holding a fraud information event on Friday, June 10 from 3 to 5 p.m. at Archway, 2420 Montrose Ave. Registration is required by calling 604-870-3763.