Scammers steal thousands from victims with psychological entrapment games

While online scams are on the rise with more people working from home amid the COVID-19 pandemic, many fraudsters are still conning unsuspecting victims through telephone calls.

“Fraudsters are using every means to target you through telephone, internet, email, text messaging, and social media,” warns Jeff Thomson, senior RCMP Intelligence Analyst with the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre (CAFC).

The number one fraud reported with significant financial losses was romance, which cost East Coast residents more than $400,000 from 2017 to June 30, 2020.

After romance, job scams followed in Nova Scotia, with reported financial losses of approximately $171,242.51. At the same time, it was extortion (obtaining something, such as money, through force or threats) that topped the scam list in P.E.I., with losses of $14,389.00. In Newfoundland and Labrador, loan losses led, with a total cost of $42,291.67, according to CAFC.

Thomson said fraudsters look to catch those not thinking straight.

“They play on emotions, like fear (extortion scams), love (romance scams), or elation (prize scams). They are scripted and create urgent scenarios that can cause panic and get people to react – this is where we (CAFC) want to get people to slow down and scrutinize,” he said.

“Don’t react, take time to scrutinize the request or demand – would the government ever ask you to pay taxes with gift cards or through a bitcoin A.T.M.? Talk to family members and friends, call the police if your gut is telling you something is not right.”

Nova Scotia RCMP spokesperson Cpl. Jennifer Clarke said it’s essential to be informed and vigilant for these scams that can cost time, money, or identity.

“We (RCMP) certainly hear about a lot of phone scams. I received a call the other day from Visa and Mastercard, and I know they are two different companies, so it is happening,” said Clarke.

Though many assume it is only the elderly that fall victim to such seemingly obvious ploys, these scams are becoming more sophisticated and targeting younger victims with the rise of smartphones.

“A lot of seniors fall victim, but we are now finding more younger people coming forward. They cannot believe that they would fall for a scam and feel shocked, even embarrassed,” said Clarke, while acknowledging that anyone can fall victim, at any time.

“I – personally – get phone calls from fraudsters all the time,” added Clarke.

Common scams

Recognize, reject, and report fraud to the local police and the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre. - Desiree Anstey
Recognize, reject, and report fraud to the local police and the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre. – Desiree Anstey


The most common telephone scam, which began circulating in late August, is Social Insurance Number (S.I.N.) extortion, according to CAFC. Consumers are asked for their personal information, risking identity fraud.

“They are scripted and use technology like telephone number spoofing, email or website spoofing to make their pitches appear more legitimate,” said Thomson.

Since July, Asian communities have reported automated calls that can be intimidating and threatening and claim to have an urgent message from a courier company or law enforcement.

More scams to be aware of, said Thomson, include the “bank investigator.” In this case, fraudsters try to trick consumers into providing their own money to aid in a criminal investigation.

From 2017 to June 30, 2020, in Nova Scotia, 42 cases of bank investigator fraud were reported, with one report in P.E.I. and six reported in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Prize scams are another threat, including winning a car where the victim must pay a small fee to cover taxes, legal fees, and delivery costs. Emergency scams, which prey on the fear of a loved one being hurt or in trouble and in need of money immediately, are also common.

Thomson said it’s important for people to recognize the signs of a fraudster.

“Reject and report them to the local police to know what crimes are happening in their communities. Report to the CAFC and service providers that may unknowingly get used to facilitate fraud, such as banks, telephone, or email companies,” he said.

And recognize the signs of a scam, said Clarke.

“Asking people to buy iTunes cards for certain things is always going to be a scam,” she said. “In general, a business will not use gift cards from different agencies or foreign money. If you are not sure, the best thing you can do is call back, call your bank or someone you trust.”

Prevention key

There are preventative measures to help curb financial loss or identity fraud for victims.

“Call your bank immediately to cancel any transactions. Disconnect your computer (or cellular phone) from the internet because of the private information stored there. Take your computer (or mobile phone) to someone that can clean it and make sure nothing has downloaded,” said Clarke.

Also, gather documents, receipts, emails, or copies of text messages about the fraud.

Scammers often target victims of fraud a second or third time with the promise of recovering money. Be aware, advises the CAFC, and never send recovery money.

When asked if fraudsters ever get caught, Thomson replied, “yes.”

An individual was recently arrested in Brampton, Ont., and charged in connection to transnational telephone scams, including the Canada Revenue Agency (C.R.A.) telephone scam, the bank investigator scam, and the tech support scam.

Money mules and money mule managers operating in Canada, who assist with laundering these scams’ proceeds, have also been caught. Last year, 32 people in India who allegedly posed as Canadian officials in a call centre that was part of a phone fraud scheme targetting Canadians, were also caught.

“Some of these fraudsters are outside of Canada – not all, but some – and trying to locate them, with different country policies, can be challenging,” noted Clarke.

CAFC states on their website that the fraud impact so far this year (as of July 31) has affected 14,811 Canadians with $54 million lost, while 32,076 Canadians have reported scams. And between March 6 to Aug. 31, $5.6 million was lost to COVID-19 fraud, with 2,963 victims across the country.

What to do

If you think you have been the victim of fraud, report it to the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre, toll-free number 1-888-495-8501, available Monday to Friday from 9 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. (Eastern Time), as well as the local RCMP.

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