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Meeting for coffee has become more complicated

Cathy McLean, executive director of SCONA Seniors Centre in Edmonton, offers members valuable connection through phone chats. Phone and online visits have become even more important during the COVID-19 restrictions on socializing. Photo: Kate Wilson

The relationship seemed to blossom online and there were prospects of romance. But the victim, an Alberta woman, ended up with an empty bank account and emotional upheaval. 

The woman, whose name has been withheld, met her hopeful partner on a dating site. They developed a rapport over about three months.

“The scammer told the victim they had a shipping company and were currently working overseas on a contract. They said they’d obtained a large quantity of gold and would bring it back, but may need the victim’s help,” said Edmonton police detective Jason Lapointe.

The scammer always had an excuse why he couldn’t talk, but when finances came up, the victim was asked to send money with promises it would be paid back. 

Through several money transfers and stories of border tie-ups and shipping fees, the woman ended up sending about $150,000.

This type of romance scam is part of an alarming trend. The Better Business Bureau reported romance scams as the third most risky in Canada in 2019, behind timeshares and advance-fee loan scams. For dollar loss alone, romance fraud was in top spot last year, along with crypto currency fraud. 

The fact that older adults have a higher probability of financial stability can play against them, said Lapointe.

“Older adult are vulnerable-- especially widows, widowers and recent divorcees. Scammers can really tug on their heart strings and manipulate them,” Lapointe said.

Edmontonians reported 10 romance scams in 2017, for a total loss of nearly $370,000. That jumped to 62 incidents last year. There have already been 40 reported incidents in 2020, costing $2.4 million. The victim’s average age is 52 years.  

“But many don't report. A lot stems from embarrassment once they realize they have been scammed,” he said. “Withholding the amount of money that was sent and the way it was sent doesn’t help. Police need that information to attempt to trace it and determine who received it. It may be uncomfortable to report, but police are here to help, not judge."

It's a difficult situation: predators may see COVID-19--and increased online meetups--as an opportunity, while at the same time, older adults are encouraged to go online to find companionship. 

Nick Chrapko, a director with the Alberta Council on Aging, said online dating is a way to counter loss of loved ones, loneliness and for finding companionship. The increase in romance fraud is hindering that.

“We hear through the grapevine that many are hesitant to talk about it if they’ve been taken in. It’s discouraging people to go online dating,” he said, noting there’s a mix of motivation in the senior community. 

“Some are looking for a friendly chat, but there is a sizeable number looking for longer lasting relationships.”

Seeking ways to connect

Social isolation has been recognized as a societal problem and COVID-19 has only heightened the matter, said Mitzi Murray, executive director of the THIRD ACTion Film Festival in Calgary.

Her organization recently presented the 2014 documentary The Age of Love, about 70+ seniors trying out speed dating for the first time.  

“We as a culture need to make it okay to reach out and say ‘I’m lonely’ and have that taken seriously,” said Murray. “And we as individuals need to empower ourselves to create opportunities in our lives to connect with people.”

“The intimacy of just having somebody to wake up next to, I miss that,” said one film participant. 

“That’s all I want, is someone to love me and I can love," said another.

Build a solid connection

Despite the need for caution at your laptop, there is some good news for seniors looking to connect.

According to Senior Dating Advice, Canada is rated the sixth best country for online dating when looking at factors like friendliness, fun and trustworthiness. U.S. research further shows that seniors tend to rate potential companions based on affection, spirituality, health and goals.

Experts say those qualities take longer to emerge, so the current trend to socializing online may work in a seniors favour. Phone or online chats can allow prospective partners time to get to know one another and build a more solid connection before meeting.

At seniors centres, there are returning opportunities to socialize. The North Edmonton Seniors Centre recently initiated in-person recreation again, within COVID-19 guidelines, while Our Parent's Home retirement home is using phone calls and Zoom to connect. Our Parent's Home Recreation --andTherapist Natalie Voegeli and her team also promote Seniors Centre Without Walls, another online engagement platform, and Go the Distance online learning, which offers an array of free courses.

How to find companionship during COVID-19

Watch the same movie or cook the same meal over video chat.

Send voice notes instead of text messages so you can hear each other’s voices.

Read the same book, then discuss it online. Use Zoom, Skype or Google Meet to stay connected.

If you don’t feel safe dating online, consider a matchmaker – they’re a more direct and safe route to meeting potential partners.

Rejoin programs at seniors centres, which foster connection while maintaining safety and social distancing.

"Stay safe when looking for love or friendship online" tips from Det. Jason Lapointe, EPS Economic Crimes Section

Don’t wire money to anyone. “Predators ask for money. Even if it starts out as $20 here and $50 there, it should raise a red flag right away.”

Lock down Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter accounts. “Scammers do their homework. They also like cats? Their favourite colour is purple too? What are the chances? Remember, you don’t have to divulge everything in your dating profile. You need something to talk about when you do meet.”

Don’t fall for being unable to meet in person. “Scammers will will always have an excuse why they can’t meet in person, whether it be work related or an unexpected family illness.”

Listen to family and friends. “It is important to share your new friendships. Your loved ones usually have your best interest in mind and can be trusted to provide honest advice and guidance.”

Don’t just take their word for it. “Use available tools on the internet, many of which are free, to look up their name and any information they provide, or do a reverse search of the photos they send you.”

If you’re still unsure, report it to the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre or your local police. EPS advises how to avoid romance fraud, at