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'Like a bad dream': Sister convinced online romance scam took more than her brother's savings
SURREY, B.C. -- Barb Smith and her brother, Roger, had finally reconnected after years of distance.
“He loved to make people laugh,” Smith said. “He had a real big, kind heart.”
But before she could make the trip from Vancouver Island to visit him at home in Surrey, a police officer knocked on her door.
Roger Smith, 60, had been found dead in his apartment.
“I thought it was some kind of joke,” Barb Smith remembered about that day in late February.
But it was merely the first of many moments in what Smith has since called a “bad dream,” a nightmare she feels she can’t wake up from.
A marriage ended, an online girlfriend
At the Vancouver blind company where Roger Smith worked for over 30 years, his former boss, Duncan Porter, called him both reliable and loyal.
“He was in every morning. He’d stay late every day,” Porter said. “Every time you’d need some overtime done, he would work the overtime.”
But over the last couple of years, Porter said, he noticed that the normally chatty Smith had started to grow a little more withdrawn.
Smith’s third marriage had ended. His sister described him as “heartbroken.”
And sometime after, Porter became aware that Smith had met someone online.
Her name was "Amanda," Porter said. She was going to be flying up from Los Angeles for a visit, and she had sent photos.
As soon as Porter saw the pictures of a woman he described as a “very attractive, very racy 24-year-old,” he knew it didn’t make sense.
“(Roger) had sent her some money for a plane ticket, and it was always getting delayed and delayed and delayed. And I just said, ‘Roger, it’s not real.'”
Smith’s sister said she first became aware of the online romance last December.
“Apparently she was a geologist and she knew all about stones,” Barb Smith said, adding that her brother painted and made jewelry. “And she was coming with money, $150,000 to invest in his business.”
Smith said she thought it was “wonderful,” until she saw the photo of a woman she described as a “hot young babe.”
“I didn’t know what to do,” she said. “I believe I said something to him like, are you sure it’s legit?”
CTV News found the photos Roger Smith had of "Amanda" were of a U.S. porn star who goes by the name Raven Riley.
Her photos and her name are plastered across internet scam warning sites.
Discovery leaves sister ‘completely devastated’
When Barb Smith entered her brother’s home for the first time after his death in February, she immediately knew something was off.
He had left a light blue journal on the kitchen counter with account numbers and passwords, and a troubling message:
“I’m sorry, this is the only way out of my mess,” it read in part. “I cannot live like this anymore.”
It got worse.
“We opened his tablet, started scrolling through, and were horrified,” Smith recalled.
First were the photos: Dozens of photos of at least four young women, many explicit, several holding signs with messages that read “I love you Roger.”
Then came the Google chat messages: at least four online conversations with thousands upon thousands of messages, dating back to 2017.
And finally, the videos of himself that Roger Smith had recorded and sent via the messaging service the week before he died.
In one, timestamped Feb. 18, Smith, speaking to an “Amanda” and “Rachel” says he has nothing to live on, and can’t even pay the trustees for bankruptcy, because they, meaning Amanda and Rachel, had taken all his money.
At the end of that video, he says he intends to take his own life.
“I was completely devastated,” Barb Smith recalled. “The humiliation and the shame and the hurt he must have felt.”
There was more.
Dozens upon dozens of used iTunes and prepaid Vanilla cards, and a stack of moneygrams, also dating back to 2017.
Some were rubber banded together in groups. Roger Smith, it appears, was meticulous with his accounting.
Together, the gift cards totalled $8,000, and the money grams $25,481.28.
And Barb Smith is sure there were more.
“(Roger) had a line of credit of $70,000,” she said. “And that was gone.”
‘How do you convince someone it’s a lie?’
As Barb Smith and her daughter, Daina, began reading through the moneygrams and the messages, an overwhelming and troubling picture came into focus.
Smith said the trail showed her brother had sent money to at least 20 different people, some of them men.
“I was in disbelief. I mean it’s so bizarre. My brother is an intelligent man,” Smith recalled, as she tried to reason her way through it.
And Roger Smith’s Google chat messages seemed to follow a similar pattern over the weeks and months.
No matter who was on the other end, they began with romantic and sometimes explicit exchanges, and were followed by an ask for money.
It appears as early as November 2018, Smith was already voicing his doubts.
“Why am I being so generous with stuff I don’t have?” Smith wrote in chat with "Amanda Philip," who said she was from California.
And three days later: “Do you really love me, or am I just a sugar daddy?”
Amanda's response: “I really love you so much.”
By February 2020, the week before his death, the exchange had changed to one of resignation.
Smith: “You will not come (to Vancouver) let’s face it. Just wishful thinking.”
Amanda Philip: “I will come honey. That my home.”
Smith: “Reality is that you won’t, and I’m out of money to live on.”
Barb Smith was heartbroken.
“I don’t understand why he wouldn’t have reached out for help,” she said. “I’d have been there in a heartbeat.”
Smith’s manager, Duncan Porter, said he doesn’t know what else he could or should have done.
“How do you convince someone that this is fake, it’s a lie?” he said.
He’s not the only one
Roger Smith’s story is unfortunately familiar to Jeff Thomson, Senior RCMP Intelligence Analyst with the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre (CAFC), which tracks and traces scams, and maintains a database with reports from Canadians.
When ranked by dollar loss, romance scams are the number two fraud affecting Canadians.
In 2019, the CAFC tallied up 975 reports, 682 victims, and over $18 million in losses nationwide.
And fraud is vastly under-reported, Thomson said, with less than five per cent of victims coming forward to the CAFC.
When asked if it would be an exaggeration to say hundreds of millions of dollars were lost by British Columbians to romance scams every year, he said: “No.”
“It’s not just a financial loss,” Thomson said. “They’re devastating emotionally and psychologically for the victims.”
And often times, there are sophisticated international criminal organizations behind the scams, as a W5 investigation uncovered last year after the suicide of a Delta woman.
“It’s important for the Smiths to know that he’s not the only person this has happened to,” Thomson said.
“We really want to get people talking about fraud and to reduce the stigma…the fear, the shame, the embarrassment,” he added.
And the number one thing people who are victims of suspected fraud can do, Thomas said: report it.
“If we can get one phone number shut down, and it stops 10 people from falling victim, then we’d have an effect on the fraudsters.”
Waiting for answers
Three months after her brother’s death, Barb Smith is still waiting for the official coroner’s report.
She wishes she could afford a private investigator who could look through the paper and electronic trails, and who could trace them back to a suspect.
And she is still hoping police will investigate.
“These people are very tricky and hard to catch,” Smith said. "It’s probably a very slim chance. But it’s worth a try.”