Nearly 10 years ago, Victoria police Det. Sgt. Derek Tolmie received a concerning phone call from the family of an 85-year-old grandmother now living with a slimy 40-year-old man in her home.
He talked to the grandmother while his partner spoke with the man, who confessed he provided the senior services if she let him stay in her home and take care of her for the rest of her life.
The grandmother knew what she was doing, noted Tolmie, and gave the man money for his services. Eventually she signed over her house against the wishes of family members arguing over their inheritance. Two years later, the man sold the house, leaving the senior homeless.
Since no crime was committed, there was nothing police could do.
“The best we could do was take her to a reputable lawyer in town and say good luck. She knew what she was doing,” said Tolmie. “He was very up front about what he would do. He still provided for her after he sold the house, but she had to live in a cheap apartment because he sold her home.”
The case was slightly different from the typical romance scams Tolmie investigates as the head of the Victoria Police Department’s financial crimes division. But every year, a handful of Victoria residents fall victim to scammers pretending to be in love.
Typically the scammers create fake online profiles on dating websites and social media, then search for victims to develop a relationship with over an extended period of time. They gain their trust and affection, then ask for money to pay for various things like a plane ticket for a visit, but never arrive. Older, single women are most often the target.
In January, a Nanaimo woman in her early 70s lost nearly $100,000 after meeting a man online who claimed he was a civil engineer in China and needed money for various projects. The woman was looking for companionship in the wake of her husband’s death.
Eventually the man said he’d be traveling to a nearby city to propose to her on New Year’s Eve, but he never showed. That’s when the senior realized she’d been duped.
“They are truly the warts and the ass of our society, and the Internet only makes it easier for them,” said Tolmie, noting romance scams are among the worst frauds he sees since it plays with victim’s hearts.
“It’s building up trust and that’s the biggest thing about it. Think about somebody in your life that you trust more than anybody in the world. Now think about them stealing from you or committing a crime against you. How would you feel?”
In 2016, the RCMP recorded 748 victims had lost more than $17 million to scammers pretending to be in love. Police encourage people looking for companionship through online dating websites to be cautious and suspicious when someone you haven’t met professes their love, and claims to live nearby but is working overseas, setting the stage to later ask for money. Scammers may also say they have an emergency, such as a sick family member and need help covering costs, but police advise to never send money for any reason.
This month marks Fraud Prevention Month, which means Victoria police, alongside other departments, will be sharing information to help citizens fight frauds that Tolmie notes are significantly increasing and will continue to increase since police are ill-prepared to deal with the problem. That’s why education is key.
“I can’t protect you from yourself. You have to take ownership and look out and educate each other, inform yourself and look out for your family,” said Tolmie. “These people are preying on them and they are going to prey on you and will take advantage once given the opportunity.”
The most common frauds Tolmie sees in Victoria are internal thefts from businesses by a trusted employee and people giving personal information through phishing emails, then find themselves exploited.
For more information on fighting fraud visit vicpd.ca/fraud or the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre at antifraudcentre.ca. At 7 p.m. on Thursday, March 9, police will also be hosting a fraud prevention open house at the VicPD Hall of Honour, located at 850 Caledonia Ave. Another open house will be held in Esquimalt during the week of March 20 to 24.