Online romance scams took Canadians for more than $17 million last year alone. Officials believe only a small percentage of those cases are ever reported to police.

Does that sound implausible to you? Are you thinking there can’t be that many victims, and they can’t be giving up that much money?

Then let us introduce you to Joe.

Joe – he asked us not to use his real name – is a southern Ontario man who ended up being swindled out of tens of thousands of dollars over the course of a year.

It all started in the summer of 2016, when he got a Facebook friend request from a stranger. He accepted. Soon, he and the woman were talking back and forth on almost a daily basis.

“We became more intimate in our conversations. For lack of better words, a sort of love affair or romance began,” Joe says.

Joe remembers thinking the woman was “absolutely beautiful” based on her Facebook pictures. He says she claimed to be 31 years old and living in Amsterdam.

After about three months of constant communication, the woman started asking him for money.

“Apparently a family member died, leaving her alone. There was an inheritance involved, but there were taxes to be paid in order to get their so-called inheritance,” he says.

“I was asked to assist with the taxes to help get the money out. I really thought I was helping somebody.”

After that money was sent, the woman started asking for more money. Joe was told that the inheritance was still being held up, and the woman needed cash to cover her day-to-day expenses.

The requests kept coming, and the scam kept getting more elaborate. There were emails and phone calls. Joe says someone claiming to be a lawyer sent him realistic-looking forms, asking him to sign them to help the woman be able to join him in Canada.

Finally, last August – after a year of communication and nearly $70,000 being sent through Western Union, some of it from lines of credit Joe had taken out – a date was set for the woman to arrive in Canada.

When Joe got to the airport, the woman was nowhere to be found. He asked airport and immigration workers for help, and learned that nobody by that name had passed through the airport or been registered for a flight.

“They said … ‘Look, it looks like you’ve been scammed,’” he recalls.

“I just felt so stupid for having been so gullible.”

Amazingly, that wasn’t the end of the story. Joe says he’s still hearing from the people claiming to be the woman and her lawyer, six months after the airport no-show.

“They’re still coming up with stories – how they need so much money in order to finalize everything,” he says.

It’s believed that fewer than five per cent of romance scam victims report the crime to the authorities.

Det. Const. David Lea of Waterloo Regional Police says local victims often don’t report unless their losses have reached six figures.

In one recent case, a Waterloo Region resident sent $600,000 to a scammer they met on a dating site.

“The person ended up remortgaging their home (and) using all of their savings for their retirement,” he says.

“It just spiraled out of control.”

Police say anyone looking to avoid falling victim to a romance scam should try doing a reverse image search on the photos purportedly of the person they’re talking to, to see which other sites the pictures have been used on. They also recommend watching out for warning signs such as a stranger seemingly wanting to move the relationship forward at a fast pace.

Joe says he understands why people might feel too embarrassed to report the crime to police. He’s glad he did, and he recommends that all other victims do the same. He also has one simple message for anyone who meets a friendly stranger online.

“If anyone asks you for money, it’s ‘No,’” he says.

“End of story.”

With reporting by Nicole Lampa