The twisted mind of a serial romance scammer

On the morning of July 9, 2018, Heather Rovet heard a knock at her door. She’d been expecting a handyman to fix the kitchen cabinets in her midtown condo, and she assumed it would be the same chubby older gentleman that the renovation company had sent last time. But when she opened the door, she found a striking man in his 40s with salt-and-pepper hair and an adorable smile split by a tiny gap between his front teeth.

The repairman introduced himself as Jace Peretti. Heather invited him in, and they chatted as Jace fixed the cabinets. When he was done, she asked if he wouldn’t mind helping install towel bars in her bathrooms, and he agreed. As he was working, they got so lost in conversation—talking about his son, how he used to be a software engineer, how he loved working with his hands—that, after Jace left, Heather realized they installed one of the bars wrong. When Jace returned to fix it, she invited him out to lunch, which led to texting and, eventually, a proper date.

Over dinner at Capocaccia Trattoria, they got to know one another. Heather was 46 at the time, a real estate agent with wavy light-brown hair and the polished charm of a person who works in sales. She’d grown up in Toronto, the daughter of a psychologist and a lawyer. Jace, a jeans-and-T-shirt kind of guy who rode a motorcycle and spoke in clipped sentences, told her that he was born in Italy and that his family moved to Canada when he was a toddler. His parents died young, he said, and he was estranged from his younger brother. He told her he’d been married before, and that he had a young son from another relationship who lived with his mother. He explained that he coped with his losses by compartmentalizing his emotions. Heather felt for him and appreciated how open he was. To her, honesty was the bedrock of a healthy relationship.

After dinner, Jace walked her home. As they awkwardly shuffled their feet in her condo doorway, she decided to kiss him. Jace tossed aside his motorcycle helmet and backed her into a wall, making out with her until she couldn’t breathe. It was the best kiss she’d ever had.

Within a few months of dating, Jace met Heather’s parents. He grew close with her mother—“Ma,” as he began calling her. He showed her pictures of his own mother and told her a gut-wrenching story about her death. Soon, Jace was affectionately referring to Heather’s mom as his “not-in-law.”

By October, Jace had a key to Heather’s condo and spent most of his time there. He was a night owl—he said he’d picked up a new software job, and he was on his computer late into the evening—so Heather often went to bed before him. In the morning, she’d wake up wrapped around him, her face snuggled into the curve of his shoulder blade. He’d roll over and they’d lie there, entangled—an intimate moment before the day rushed in.

As much as she liked Jace, Heather was wary. In her experience, men in their 40s wanted women in their 30s. She’d also recently had her trust broken. A year earlier, Heather had invested $127,000 with a smooth-talking businessman who promised to double her money in the stock market. Instead, he stole it. He was convicted and ordered to repay her, but she hadn’t received any money and didn’t expect to.

As Heather and Jace got closer, he confessed to his own mistakes. He told her he’d spent some time in prison—he vaguely explained it as a miscommunication with an ex-girlfriend over credit card charges that had been exacerbated by bad legal advice. Again, Heather valued his honesty and downplayed the situation. “Martha Stewart’s been to jail,” she said. “Who cares?”

Jace was clearly self-conscious about his history. If he moved her things while cleaning, he’d tell her, “I don’t want you to ever think I’ve taken anything from you.” When an iPhone he bought her went missing, he accused the building concierge and nearly got her fired.

Over the next couple of years, other items started to disappear. A friend’s Rolex vanished during a cottage weekend. Heather’s parents lost $1,000 in U.S. cash, as well as a Tiffany necklace, a gold-and-diamond wedding band and a diamond engagement ring. The family suspected the cleaning lady—she could have found the key to their safe hidden in the underwear drawer. When they questioned her, she quit, insulted by the insinuation.

Heather never imagined that it could have been Jace. She was happy with how their relationship was progressing. When she felt low, Jace told her he loved her and promised a better future. They booked an all-inclusive winter getaway to the Dominican Republic, but just before the vacation, Jace backed out, claiming his passport renewal hadn’t gone through in time. To make it up to her, he dropped to one knee. “I would marry you right now if I could,” he told her.

On Heather’s 48th birthday, Jace surprised her with two tickets to Rome. At the last minute, however, he backed out again, saying he had to go to family court; he was in a legal battle with his ex-girlfriend over custody of their son. Heather wanted to meet the boy, but Jace demurred. He told her he wanted the case to wrap up before introducing them, to avoid rocking the boat. But it seemed to drag on forever, and Jace kept asking her to wait a few more weeks.

In May of 2020, a friend told Heather that she had some alarming news: she’d found Jace’s photos on Bumble under a different name. Unwilling to believe that her dream guy was cheating on her, Heather dismissed it: people steal photographs from the web for dating profiles all the time. But the friend suspected something wasn’t right, so she did some digging and sent Heather a copy of a family court judgment she’d found online under the name Jason Porter. Heather had seen the name before on the cover of a court binder from Jace’s custody battle with his ex-girlfriend. At the time, he told her it was a pseudonym he used while “climbing the corporate world.” She took him at his word.

It wasn’t the name that worried her most; it was the fact that the court judgment mentioned not one boy, but two—an incongruity with what Jace had told her. When she confronted him, he said he knew nothing about it. “If those were my kids,” he told her, “do you not think I would be fighting for them?” After all, hadn’t he sacrificed a trip to Italy to try to retain custody of his son? Heather gave him the benefit of the doubt. By then, they’d been dating for two years.

In September of 2020, Heather and Jace moved out of her condo and signed a two-year lease on a large brick house in Aurora. Heather paid first and last month’s rent because Jace said his money was tied up in the custody case. The home had a three-car garage and sat on five acres of forest and rolling hills. She loved the wild turkeys that roamed the property and the furniture that Jace built for their new place: a dresser, a bed frame, a dining table. They talked about having a backyard wedding. Heather grew excited to finally meet Jace’s son, who lived nearby. She even kitted out a room for the boy, buying him a captain’s bed so he would feel at home when he visited.

Living in a new town and worn out by the hustle of real estate, Heather began casting about for a new pursuit. It felt serendipitous, then, when Jace presented an exciting opportunity. Through his kitchen renovation work, he knew two people who were selling a boutique furniture and home decor business, after their King Street East storefront had closed during the pandemic. The asking price for the company and all of its inventory was just $10,000, but the buyer would also assume a $40,000 company loan. For Heather, it was an easy decision. As a real estate agent, she knew design, how to sell and how to run a business. Jace could develop a website and maybe build some furniture, too. Plus, their home had a large, well-lit basement with a separate entrance that could serve as a showroom.

Heather bought the business and made Jace a director. She told herself that he’d chip in when he could. Instead, he started using her company debit card for personal purchases like groceries, gas and work supplies. He told her not to fret; he’d lost his company card, he said, and he would pay her back. Worried but wanting to believe him, she acquiesced.

By the summer of 2021, Heather was less concerned about Jace’s finances and more preoccupied with a sudden shift in his demeanour. That June, Ontario began to emerge from a year of tight Covid restrictions. Instead of venturing back into the world, Jace withdrew into himself. He seemed to be working all the time. When he wasn’t, he said he was exhausted. Rather than smother Heather with love, as she’d come to expect, he was perpetually cranky. When she invited him to events—her cousin’s barbecue, dinner with friends—he’d never give a straight yes or no. He refused to commit to anything and would get rude and abusive when she pressed him. Increasingly suspicious, Heather accused him of cheating on her. In a rage, he denied it.

By August, Jace was hardly around. He’d vanish for days at a time without explanation. He agreed to couples therapy but showed up only intermittently. Dejected, Heather resigned herself to the fact that they would break up.

On the Friday before Labour Day, while Jace was pulling one of his disappearing acts, Heather bought a new computer—she had shared one with Jace, but she often confused passwords and locked herself out by typing the wrong one too many times. When she signed into a browser on the new device, a notification popped up directing her to a list of saved passwords. Curious, she tried one of the passwords on their shared computer, and it worked. She opened Jace’s email account, determined to figure out what was going on.

She wasn’t prepared for what she found. As Heather scrolled, she discovered Jace was on several dating apps: Plenty of Fish, eHarmony, Match.com. He’d been talking to hundreds of women under fake names—Don, Donato, Mike—not just in the tumultuous recent months, but for years. She found Kijiji listings and bills of sale for jewellery, including her mother’s Tiffany ring. She couldn’t believe what she was seeing.

Suddenly, Heather remembered the Bumble photos, the legal documents and the name Jason Porter. She googled the name and found headlines going back 10 years about a romance scammer the press had dubbed “Online Romeo.” She glommed onto a quote from an assistant Crown attorney who described Jason’s breaches of trust as “egregious.” Heather stared at Jason’s mugshot, then Jace’s photo. They were identical. She cycled fast through emotions: shock, incredulity, disgust, panic. Fuck, she thought, what did I ignore?

The typical advice to avoid falling prey to a romance scam probably wouldn’t have helped Heather. Watch out, the experts say, when your new flame doesn’t want to meet in person. Beware when he asks you to invest in his fledgling business. Definitely don’t send him nude photos. But what about when he knocks on your door and generously installs a towel bar? What if he never outright asks you for money? What if he’s a great kisser who sleeps in your bed for three years?

Such fraudsters sustain long cons through psychological manipulation. They explain away every red flag—tied-up money, cancelled trips, alter egos—with such nonchalance that their targets can feel crazy for even suspecting something might be amiss. The longer the relationship continues, the more time works in the offender’s favour: their victims become less able to see the scam for what it is. It’s only in retrospect—when it’s too late—that the evidence seems obvious.

In Canada, romance scams are one of the most common cybercrimes. Last year was particularly fruitful for online Romeos, who took advantage of the fact that single people, forced into isolation by the pandemic, went looking for love online in greater numbers than ever before. According to the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre, fraudsters bilked more than 600 victims out of $31.6 million in the first nine months of 2021. That’s compared to $17.8 million in the entirety of 2017.

And those are just the cons we know about. Romance scamming is an underreported crime. Victims tend to be generous risk-takers who trust too much and question too little. Like Heather, they are most often women, middle-aged and looking for love. Some don’t even know they’ve been duped. Others choose not to report out of shame or embarrassment, afraid that people will blame them for being gullible rather than condemning the person who conned them.

Because he told so many lies, it’s hard to discern the whole sordid story of Jace Peretti, but the truth goes something like this. He was born Jason Owen Donald Porter on December 21, 1974. His mother, Christine, was 20. His father, who Jason says was an alcoholic, stayed long enough to give him a younger brother in 1978, then Christine left him and took the kids. Not long after, Christine met Bob, a young local radio announcer in Kitchener. “[Bob] was everything my father wasn’t,” Jason has said. But in 1984, Bob died at the age of 25. His passing devastated Jason, who was only nine. He reportedly left Kitchener to live with his biological father in Toronto, where he was in and out of youth detention centres for swiping credit cards, breaking and entering and stealing cars. Then, in the summer of 1993, when he was 18, his mother died in a car accident.

Jason has said that his mother’s death inspired him to leave crime behind. In reality, he was just getting started. When his estranged younger brother received an inheritance, Jason asked him for $5,000 to start a new life in British Columbia. He took the money and instead went on vacation. Jason claimed to hold a computer science degree from the University of Waterloo, though he never actually attended, and he told his girlfriends that he also worked as a software engineer. His lies seemed to work in business and romance alike.

He met his future wife in 2002 and married her the following year. They had their first son in 2004 and a second in 2006. Their four-year marriage was marked by Jason’s lies and aggression. He threatened her on multiple occasions, and she called the police several times. In 2007, when she asked for a divorce, Jason put his fist through a wall. She took the kids and fled.

Over the next week, Jason bombarded her with different ways he planned to kill himself—he even prepared a goodbye video that he wanted her to play for the kids. Paramedics were called to attend to Jason at least four times that week, at least once by his wife when he told her he’d guzzled 90 pills and downed two bottles of liquor. The police broke down the door of the marital home, where they found him, drunk. He later drank bleach and turpentine in front of his wife, then crumpled to the ground. Police took him in handcuffs to the hospital for an involuntary 48-hour hold. They advised him to see a psychologist.

In December 2007, Jason’s soon-to-be ex-wife filed for sole custody and a restraining order, stating that she was afraid he would kill her, given his propensity for violence. In the filing, she also wrote that Jason had a history “of recounting events and reversing the roles of the people involved.” Proving her right, he reported her to the Children’s Aid Society, wrongfully claiming she’d abused their children and sending them a doctored photo of his son with a giant bruise on his neck. CAS closed the file when they discovered the picture was fake.

Jason’s inconsistency was hard on his kids. According to his ex-wife, his youngest son found their weekend visits disturbing and disruptive. In 2008—during the last summer that Jason had access to his kids unsupervised—he sent them home with bad scrapes and bumps on the head. One son had a facial injury that required stitches, and the other had a gash on his head from being hit by a tape measure while playing unsupervised.

Afterwards, Jason accused his ex-wife of keeping his sons from him, despite the fact that his brother and sister-in-law offered to supervise visits. He began disappearing for long stretches of time. Once, he broke into the boathouse at his former father-in-law’s cottage. He also took $15,000 worth of stereo equipment from the neighbour’s cottage.

All the while, Jason invented workarounds that would win him back his kids. He bought a phony anger-management certificate online. He fabricated the addresses of places he claimed to live. He filed erroneous forms to prevent his ex-wife’s lawyer from accessing his criminal record and medical files. He was the picture of compliance in his affidavits, professing to be the bigger person in the relationship. “I am making my best efforts to keep these proceedings clear of negative comments, finger pointing and accusations,” he wrote in one affidavit. He later claimed to have found God. “I pray every day for my two boys and their mother,” he said. “I’ve been diligently trying to get my life back in order.”

Jason remained adamant that he was not a danger to his children. To prove it, he voluntarily underwent a psychological evaluation, which included five hours of interviews and a test designed to catch embellishments and falsehoods. The psychologist concluded that Jason was charming and socially appropriate, if occasionally hyperactive, with some narcissistic traits. “[He] appears to have been generally honest in the manner in which he is representing himself,” the psychologist wrote, demonstrating Jason’s immense powers of persuasion.

In January of 2009, still bitter about the divorce, Jason launched a short-lived website “geared solely to help fathers and ex-husbands disprove their ex-wife’s [sic] slanderous lies and mistruths when the courts fail.” The site’s obvious purpose was revenge and humiliation; it claimed that it would include nude photos and forums to discuss family court cases. On it, Jason quoted himself saying, “Over the last 35 years men have been stripped down naked by these vulture applicant lawyers, everything exposed for the courts and their peers to hear, and feeling like your worth less then [sic] the two dimes you have left in your pocket afterward.”

By 2011, the Ontario Superior Court of Justice recognized Jason’s efforts to regain custody for what they were: disingenuous and abusive. “The record establishes that he is manipulative and committed to a war of attrition through litigation at the same time that he is intent on avoiding compliance with court orders that require him to pay support, make disclosure and pay costs,” wrote one justice in a May 2011 ruling. “His commitment to dishonesty appears to be pathological.” Jason never regained custody.

Throughout the late 2000s, as Jason cycled in and out of jail and failed to show up for supervised visits with his kids, he devoted himself to running a round-the-clock romance scam operation. He lied about his past and his work and even convinced one woman they’d attended Waterloo together. At first, Jason appeared to be the consummate boyfriend, cleaning his girlfriends’ apartments and cooking them dinner. He professed his love to them early and often, and he frequently talked about marriage. He booked elaborate vacations—only to back out at the last minute. To cover up short stints in jail, he claimed to be on business trips in China and Africa. Behind the women’s backs, he was pilfering their jewellery, selling their luxury watches and taking their cars for joyrides. One of his victims wrote in an affidavit, “In a short period of time, Jason has had a devastating impact on my life.”

In 2009, Jason got sloppy. While attending a wedding with a woman he was dating at the time, he stole a wallet and was caught using the money to buy prepaid cards, gas and cigarettes. He spent about four months in jail for the crime, then another eight behind bars for various infractions the following year. In November of 2011, the Toronto Police Service shared his mugshot, stating that they believed he had other victims. In January, he was arrested. He pleaded guilty to 15 charges—including several counts of fraud under $5,000, breaking and entering, and obtaining credit cards through fraud—and was sentenced to 30 months in federal prison.

When Jason was released in 2014, with little education or credible work history, he jumped right back into his fraudulent ways. He started going by Jace Parratti—sometimes spelled Peretti—and met a new mark on Match.com. By the fall, he’d moved in with her. By the spring of 2015, they had a son. Her three years with Jace were full of disappearances: credit cards and jewellery went missing, money vanished from her account and from another set up for their son. Jace even appeared to have stolen from his own toddler’s piggy bank. He conned their nanny out of $500, too; he borrowed her credit card under the nonsensical pretense of paying her taxes. The girlfriend found out that he’d also been opening her father’s bank statements and practising his signature.

After kicking Jace out, the woman searched every inch of the house. She found jewellery she’d never seen before, a neighbour’s passport and a newspaper delivery bag that belonged to a boy down the road. She discovered a receipt from a pawn shop and, when she visited the store, found her grandmother’s ring, which had been missing for nearly a year. She soon realized Jace wasn’t paying their bills, and that he’d put a temporary stop on her mail, likely to prevent her from finding out. In February of 2019, the courts gave her sole custody of their son.

By that time, Jace had gotten a job at a kitchen renovation company through an unemployment agency. When he was fired for refusing to follow his supervisor’s instructions, he was already spending most of his nights at Heather’s condo.

When Heather, like so many women before her, discovered Jace’s true identity, she didn’t know what to do. She’d spent the entire summer feeling responsible for ruining their relationship, only to learn that she’d been the victim of an unthinkable betrayal. She was angry, she was hurt, and she was stuck on the fact that he’d told her he loved her barely a week earlier. The Labour Day weekend was a blur. She called a friend, her sister, her parents, and then a lawyer and the police. “It’s not a crime to talk to women online,” an officer told her. But if she felt unsafe in her home, they added, she should leave.

Heather tried to figure out how to untangle herself from Jace. There was the house, the business, a Mercedes SUV her father was selling to Jace. (He’d already made a down payment and taken the car.) On Sunday night, heeding a police officer’s advice, Heather’s father texted Jace that he’d need to return the Mercedes or else it would be reported stolen.

When he got the text, Jace immediately called Heather. She didn’t pick up, so he texted her that he’d be home in 20 minutes. Panicked, she called the police again. Jace arrived first. By that time, Heather had changed the locks, so he pried open a window and climbed in. While they were waiting for the cops, Heather confronted Jace. “I know everything,” she told him—that he had lied, cheated and stolen, that he had more kids. Unnaturally calm, he denied it all and made himself a coffee. When the police arrived, Jace offered them a cup, too.

The officers spoke to Jace and Heather separately. Her heart thumped fast as one of the cops told her that Jace had alleged she’d assaulted him and that he could press charges. Heather vehemently denied Jace’s accusation and explained her side of the story. Ultimately, the officers recorded it as a domestic dispute. No charges were laid.

Heather moved into her parents’ condo, while Jace stayed in the house. She convinced their landlord to draw up a form releasing them from the lease, but Jace wouldn’t sign. So Heather instead submitted an N15 form, which offers victims a quick, safe exit from abusive households. In January, Heather’s landlord called to say that Jace hadn’t been paying rent, and that they were evicting him. The following month, the Toronto Real Estate Board put out a warning about Jace, alleging that he defaulted on his Aurora rent, stole from past landlords and rented—and failed to return—furniture using a cancelled credit card. Beware, the warning said, of this “habitual fraudster.”

With Jace finally gone, Heather began to unravel his lies. When she sold the captain’s bed she’d bought for his son, she pulled out the drawers and discovered that, in the empty spaces behind them, Jace had been hiding receipts, foreign coins, social assistance letters, overdue bills, empty Cartier bags, and a court decision from Jace’s custody case, which had been settled for more than two years. She couldn’t help but wonder how much of their relationship was a ruse. It went all the way back to the beginning, she realized. The pilfered jewellery, the missing cash, the lost watch—it had all been Jace. Even the plane tickets to Italy were fake.

To help sort fact from fiction, Heather made a timeline of their relationship and a spreadsheet of suspicious bank transactions and unpaid bills. Jace owed thousands for utilities on their Aurora home, plus hundreds more in phone bills and credit card charges. When she revisited her bank statements, she realized money had left her account in small, unsuspicious increments. It’s hard to say exactly how much Jace took, but, between the money and jewellery he stole, the loans he took out and the bills he never paid, Heather’s family is now out upwards of $200,000.

Jace faces only two charges for what he did to Heather and her family: theft under $5,000 and possession of property obtained by crime. There’s not enough evidence to prove much else; Jace wiped his computer before leaving. The case will likely last several months. In a brief email exchange, Jace declined an interview request. “Was everything sensationalized, absolutely,” he wrote. He claimed he couldn’t say more because he had to protect his children. I also reached out to Jason’s family members, but none of them responded to interview requests.

How many women has Jace wooed? How much has he stolen from them? How many lives has he indelibly damaged? Last fall, Heather sent a flurry of messages to women who had dated or talked to Jace, detailing what he did to her. “My name is Heather Rovet and up until a couple of months ago I had been in what I thought was a loving, committed, long-term relationship with Jace Peretti,” she wrote. So far, six women have responded and opened up to her about how they fell for his act. One of them, who met Jace on Plenty of Fish and talked to him over the phone but never met him in person, thanked Heather for the warning. “I think I would have been at great risk of being completely taken in by his charm,” she told me.

Heather is now trying to move on. She spent the winter in Thailand, hoping to find some peace and thinking about how she can use her experience to help other women. For now, she is hanging onto jewellery that Jace gave her—she suspects he stole the pieces from other victims—in case she one day meets their rightful owners. “Who are the other women he was stringing along when I was in my happiest place?” she wonders. “They were probably happy, too.”

This story appears in the April 2022 issue of Toronto Life magazine. To subscribe for just $24.99 a year, click .