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Calgary woman swindled out of nearly $500K in online dating scam

Calgary police, Europol and the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre are investigating a romance scam that bilked a Calgary woman out of nearly $500,000. (Colleen Underwood/CBC)

Calgary police, Europol and the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre are investigating a romance scam that bilked a Calgary woman out of nearly $500,000.

Photo:  (Colleen Underwood/CBC)

RCI

Legal expert says people need to stop blaming the victim in cases like this

His online dating profile included a handsome looking photo and an uncomplicated life.

He was from Calgary. He was 62. He was divorced with no kids. Christian. He had an advanced degree.

And he was a romantic at heart.

He basically said, 'I want to rush to where you are at the end of the day,' said Shelley Smith, 60. 

CBC News has agreed not to use the woman's real name because she is ashamed of having fallen prey to a romance scam that left her near financial ruin, at one point shunned by her family and feeling suicidal.

Calgary police are now investigating. Its blockchain investigative team is working with Europol and the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre to trace the source of the fraud. Police are also encouraging other victims to come forward.

 Smith says as hard as it is to come forward, that's the only way these scams will stop.

It's easy to look at people and go, 'How stupid could she be?' But it's not that. It's that people are in a place in their life where they're so vulnerable that they fall victim to something like this, said Smith.

This is the stolen image used by the man who called himself Carl Pettersson in the online dating platform Zoosk that first caught Shelly Smith's attention. (Submitted)Enlarge image (new window)

This is the stolen image used by the man who called himself Carl Pettersson in the online dating platform Zoosk that first caught Shelly Smith's attention.

Photo:  (Submitted)

Building trust

Smith says looking back she realizes she was not in the best state of mind to initiate a relationship in September 2021. Her sole sibling, a brother, had recently passed away. Her father fell ill and died within weeks. Her mother was recently diagnosed with dementia, and Smith says she had her own health issues.

I was probably the most vulnerable that I've ever been in my entire life, said Smith.

But she says the man she met online through the dating app was there for her.

Carl Pettersson (not his real name) texted and talked with her constantly.

But attempts to meet in person were always thwarted before he said he had to leave the country. He'd told her he was an architect and was going to build a luxury hotel in Turkey starting in December 2021.

But when Pettersson landed there, he said his laptop had broken and he needed her to access his bank account to transfer money to different contractors. And, by doing so, she could see his bank balance. It was more than $1 million — allowing her to believe he was rich. 

They groom you … it had his name and everything. It's quite elaborate what they can do.

Days later, he said the bank froze his account and he needed money to pay duty on all the heavy equipment being sent over. When she offered to help, he initially declined.

A week or so later, she says, he took her up on that offer.

It was just going to be the short term, and that just progressed — from that to 'I just need another blah blah blah to get home and I'll make all of this right,' and then one problem after another.

An employee got injured and needed hospital care. Pettersson got sick. He had to go to court. Always a new issue.

The wire transfers were a few thousand at a time, usually through a bitcoin account, which he said was easier to access.

She also shipped him laptops and other computer equipment to sell overseas for money. All told, Smith estimates she sent Pettersson cash and equipment amounting to nearly $500,000.

All the while, she says, he told her not to tell anyone because he didn't want her friends and family to think poorly of him when they eventually met.

And whenever she questioned him, he turned the tables.

'How dare you say that after all we've been through. I can't believe you would say that.' So then there's guilt placed on you that you're doubting [him], said Smith.

Jarring reality

Smith says she was running out of money. She had used up a home equity line of credit, borrowed from family and friends, and cashed in RRSPs. She even took out a second mortgage.

But she says she couldn't stop because each time Pettersson said he just needed a little more to get home to repay her. 

Then one day last August, as she was planning to sell her parent's home to access more cash, her cousins came over and broke the news to her.

They'd done a reverse image search with his photo and discovered Pettersson wasn't who he said he was. The photo belonged to someone who lived in Denver and was used in several dating profiles. 

Finding out that you know this wasn't real and then that clearly I'd lost all of this money, I crashed, said Smith.

Smith says she not only lost her money and the supposed love of her life, but also several family members who couldn't believe she got scammed and hid so much from them. 

 I was feeling suicidal. I was so devastated. 

CBC News reached out to the man in the photo used by Pettersson. His name is Bradley Joseph. He works in marketing in Denver, and he says he hears from women from all over the world after they've figured out they've been scammed.

Joseph says this has been going on for about five years.

It makes me uncomfortable and it makes me really sad and I get angry, there's so many people out there who are just lonely and vulnerable, said Joseph.

No background checks

Smith says she takes full responsibility for the mistakes she made, the lies she told her family and the red flags she ignored.

But she says she also thinks that the dating app, Zoosk, could have done more to protect its clients.

Zoosk's terms of agreement state it does not routinely screen users, inquire into backgrounds, attempt to verify information or conduct criminal background checks.

Smith believes Zoosk should ask for two pieces of ID to raise the entry bar, require new clients to watch a video depicting stories of victims who've been scammed, and do reverse image searches of profile photos.

My biggest thing right now is I can't walk away from this without trying to make a difference somehow, said Smith.

Last year, a U.S. court ruled that another online dating service, Match Group Inc., was not guilty of defrauding its customers (new window) for failing to keep fake profiles off of Match.com. 

Don't blame victim

Legal expert Irina Manta says people could try more exclusive and expensive online dating services to receive a better vetting process.

But in the meantime, she says, people need to stop blaming the victim. 

Manta is a law professor at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., and the founding director of its Center for Intellectual Property Law. 

She says it's tough to put yourself in someone else's shoes. She says sometimes people are down on their luck through no fault of their own. And sometimes, she says, there can be rational reasons why people brush away red flags.

In these cases, she says, it might be a limited dating pool.

If there are not a lot of awesome people that might want to be in a partnership with you, there's a chance this is not a good person. But maybe there is a chance this is a good person. You're going to sort of keep going for as long as possible, said Manta.

A 3D model depicting a luxury hotel the scammer said he planned to build in Turkey. (Submitted)Enlarge image (new window)

A 3D model depicting a luxury hotel the scammer said he planned to build in Turkey.

Photo:  (Submitted)

Smith says that when she finally confronted Pettersson, he told her he was sorry and that he was also a victim. Pettersson said he had been trying to pay back a gambling debt, and had to call her for money, often at gunpoint. 

And then he blamed her, saying she forced him to take the money. 

Smith says that rather than asking how can the victim be so stupid, people need to ask how can the criminal be so cruel?

I really want to change that attitude. It's like you guys are forgetting here a crime was committed.

Smith, a registered nurse, says she will now have to work past her original retirement date to rebuild her savings. But she says she's been able to pay back the money she borrowed and keep her home. She still has an outstanding line of credit.

Colleen Underwood (new window) · CBC News 

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