When a handsome stranger started chatting with Cindy Browne on TikTok, she was intrigued.
They quickly took their courtship to WhatsApp and bonded over their shared difficulty in love: He told her his wife had died of cancer. She told him her first husband had also died and she’d recently found out her second husband was cheating on her.
“[He] WhatsApped me every day, so nicely talking,” said Browne.
“I fell for him.”
Less than a year later, Browne says the man she thought she was building a life with had scammed her out of about $26,000 in a type of scheme the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre says is on the rise.
In a statement, Toronto police confirmed they’re investigating, and said “unfortunately, this type of crime isn’t uncommon.”
‘Drastic’ increase in romance scams
Jeff Horncastle, a unit supervisor with the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre, agreed.
“It’s a story that we hear far, far too often,” said Horncastle, who noted that romance scams have seen a “drastic” increase in recent years.
In 2020, the fraud centre registered a reported loss of nearly $28 million due to romance scams in Canada. In 2021, that number more than doubled to more than $64 million – though Horncastle believes that may be an underestimate, as people are often reluctant to report this type of crime. Last year, romance scams accounted for the second-highest amount of dollars lost to fraud in Canada, the centre said.
Horncastle said some warning signs that could point to a potential scam include:
Browne’s purported sweetheart called himself Fabian, and said he was a pilot based in Jordan. About two months after they started chatting, he asked for her clothing size and said he planned to send gifts from his travels in Europe.
Fabian told her she’d have to pay a fee to have the gifts delivered.
“I thought maybe the fee was going to cost me, about $30 or $20 or $100 or something,” she said.
But when she got a call from someone who claimed to work for a courier company holding the gifts, Browne was told the fee would cost $1,500.
When she asked Fabian about this, he told her that there was $150,000 inside the gift.
Shocked, Browne asked him why and said he told her he’d “fallen in love with me and then we’re going to settle down in Canada.”
Browne was uncertain. Still, she did as she was told and sent the $1,500 using a nearby BitCoin ATM.
But it didn’t end there. The company kept asking for more money – and threatening legal trouble if she didn’t pay up. She even dipped into funds she’d been saving to fly to Singapore to visit her mother’s grave.
Horncastle noted that scammers aren’t amateurs; they will put a lot of care into constructing a persona their victims will find appealing.
“These criminals unfortunately know exactly what these people want to hear,” he said.
“They know how to manipulate them, they know how to play with their emotions, and unfortunately, that’s why they’re able to get so much money out of these victims.”
‘I never thought that wasn’t real’
At one point, Browne said she asked Fabian why he didn’t pay the fee since he was a pilot.
“Fabian told me: because Qatar airlines hold his account,” she said. “And then I just never [thought] that wasn’t real.”
Eventually, Browne had cleared out her savings, and was considering selling her car to get more cash.
The situation finally came to an end when Browne, who manages a car wash, was visibly distraught at work. A police officer who was a regular customer asked her what was wrong, and when she described the situation, he urged her to report it.
“The officer called me five days later and then they said, ‘You’ve been scammed,'” she said.
At the time, Browne didn’t confide to friends or family about what was going on.
Now, she wants to share her story to warn others about the risk of romance scams.
“Just be careful when you don’t know the person, you never meet them and they start fall[ing] in love with you,” she said.
When it comes to protecting yourself online, Horncastle said:
Above all, Horncastle said, don’t ever send money to someone you haven’t met. Browne agreed.
“It already happened to me,” she said.