A curious seduction
For nine months now, Susie has been talking to Howard every night. She has fallen head
over heels for him. She is preparing their wedding at his request. Excited, Susie takes
pictures of herself wearing long white dresses. She sends them to Howard on her mobile
phone, glancing over and over at her screen to see if he's responded.
Susie's husband has no idea she has taken a lover, let alone one she dreams of marrying.
He is also in the dark about where their savings are going. What Susie doesn't know is
that her new suitor is a fake, and that her money is gone forever.
Like thousands of women every year who are fleeced by scammers using false identities
on social media, Susie is the victim of a romance scam. The modus operandi is almost
always the same: over a period that can span months, even years, the scammer gradually
wins over the victim, typically a divorced, widowed or lonely woman. He becomes a part
of her everyday life, compliments and cajoles her, until she falls for him. His trap
set, he then begins asking her for money.
721 Canadians were victims of romance scams 2017, according to the Canadian
Anti-fraud Center (CAC). $18,1 million was stolen. According to the CAC's estimations,
only only up to five per cent of cases are reported.
Several victims of romance scams, all women, agreed to tell their stories to
Radio-Canada. Their sadly similar stories shed light on a cruel scheme that is more
frequent than one might think. Their names have been changed to protect their privacy.
Susie has no idea how her scammer found her. She says a friend request popped up "out
of nowhere" on her Facebook profile. He called himself Howard Brandon, a sixty-something
widower, father of a 15 year-old boy, and globetrotting salesman from Alabama.
Howard would send Susie pictures of himself in locations all over the world. His life
seemed riveting. Smiling behind the wheel of luxury cars, eating in fancy restaurants,
enjoying life with his son or with friends. He was always impeccably dressed. In a few
pictures, he even proudly wore a uniform from his military days.
Susie lived with her husband on the outskirts of Camden, a hamlet of some 7,000 souls
in South Carolina. On a list of the region's top 10 tourist attractions, two are
cemeteries. The American army suffered its worst defeat in the Revolutionary War
She had started to feel invisible in her husband's presence. She was ripe for the
plucking. "He was the reason why I turned to this man. That's also the reason why
married women do it, too, when husbands don't pay you no attention," she says.
"They make you fall in love with them. And then, there's nothing left. It's not only
your money that you lost, your heart's broken, too." - Susie
Susie and Howard would talk for hours on the Viber messaging app. He had a weird accent
for an American, she thought, but he told her he was born in Denmark. He gradually
started to profess romantic feelings for her.
Shortly after beginning their virtual tryst, Howard said he had to go on a lengthy
business trip. "He had to go to West Virginia, then London, then Hong Kong," Susie
When she tells these stories, she has a tendency to discuss Howard as if he really
existed, as if we were talking about a real businessman. She pauses and quips: "Now,
you know I'm just telling you what he told me. Now I know it was all a lie."
One day, Howard called her in a panic. He seemed nervous. The materials he wanted to
import from Singapore for his business were stuck at the border. He didn't have the
funds to pay the taxes and duty fees. He had already refinanced his fancy cars, he
said. Could she help him out with a loan?
"That's when he started begging. I sent some money before my husband found out about
this. It started out just bits and pieces," Susie says. She sent $200 here, $300 there.
When her husband asked where the money was going, she told him she was paying internet
or power bills.
There came a day when Howard asked for a sum so large that Susie could hardly hide it
from her husband. Howard gave her a cover story: her childhood friend had recently got
in touch with her and needed a loan to start a business. "The last payment was something
like $65,000. We refinanced our house," she says. Howard assured her that it was an
investment, that she would see a handsome profit and that, soon, he'd be back in the
United States and that they could be married.
"By then, he had me hooked. I never had a man make me feel like he did," she recalls.
"I feel crazy talking to you about this."
Time flew by. Despite the $90,000 that Susie had already sent him, Howard was still
abroad and continued asking for money. His materials were still in administrative
limbo, he said. Howard also claimed that he got into a serious car accident in Turkey
and both his knees were dislocated. He said he needed money for medical treatment.
As proof, Howard sent her pictures of his injuries. "He even sent me one that had a
hospital bracelet with his name on it," Susie says. "He sent me several pictures that I
later found out were photoshopped."
But Susie's finances were sucked dry. "He started getting a bit ugly when I told him
that there was no more money. I said, 'I won't live now to see my house paid for.' Well,
not unless I live a lot longer than I think I will."
She then tried to borrow money from friends and acquaintances. Ironically, this is what
saved her. Her friend's son is a police officer in Charleston, South Carolina. He
thought Susie's story was suspicious. After some research, he had bad news for Susie.
Howard's photos had been used by scammers before. They were plastered all over the web,
on dating sites and social media profiles.
Susie confronted Howard. "He said that someone had stolen his pictures. He said that I
didn't care for him, otherwise I wouldn't be asking him these questions." But she
finally saw clear through him. She had been scammed.
"I was... I was pretty broken up about it. I'd started doubting some, but in the
back of my mind, I was crazy in love with that man."
Will she be able to live through this? She hesitates. "Yeah. There's some things I may
never completely get over. My love for him. I know that. It's just something I have to
put in its proper place." Then she sighs: "Sometimes I'll fall into a little hole and
start thinking about him, and what I thought we had. The holidays, things like that,
make me think about him."