Scams – that can cost you money

Tom Locke - Insolvency Trustee in London, Ontario
August 25, 2022

Scams have been around for a long time and have come in a wide variety of forms.  We can’t cover all of them, but I’d like to talk about some I have seen impact people I know.  The two main delivery systems are phone and email and in either case, they can sound very officious and close to genuine.

As a kid I remember the simpler scams that real companies would use to separate people from their money, then as now the most vulnerable people were the elderly.  I recall my father buying book after book from companies like Readers Digest the scam involves a sweepstakes draw for a grand prize, but in order to stay in the running for the draw you must buy books, lots of books.

From Wikipedia: “In 2001, 32 states’ attorneys general reached agreements with the company and other sweepstakes operators to settle allegations that they tricked the elderly into buying products because they were a “guaranteed winner” of a lottery.”

Some of the newer scams we have seen include:

Matrimonial Scam:

This one targets lonely people with offers of romance and love.  It can take several shapes, one is the “celebrity wedding scam”.  It may start with a text message from a famous Hollywood star or a well known singer.  The scammer uses a picture of the personality to help convince the victim that the star really is the source of the text or email.

The “star” tells stories of a disappointed love life and emotional ruin to build the sympathies of the victim.  They work on developing a rapport with the victim by exploring the victims own romantic experiences and disillusionment.  Once they have convinced the victim that they both really want to be together they start requesting money. 

The monetary requests are justified because “my spouse has all my assets locked up by court order” or “I am just waiting for my agent to release funds from my last concert” or some other, similar, predictably emotional leverage.  Once the funds start coming the requests increase in frequency and in quantity and always involve some sad story to create the impression the victim is helping out their new friend.

The answers seems to be to use common sense – if you are 72 years old and some famous, vivacious, 34 year old actor or pop star is courting you, it is most likely fakery.  But once the sympathy hooks are in, the victim feels a tremendous sense of guilt and shame for letting their new friend down. 

Unfortunately, human instincts are very strong, especially our defense mechanisms, and when someone, albeit a friend, family member or other confidant says something, the victim jumps to the defence and backs up the new friend over the trusted old friend.  After all, how could the victim’s “feelings” be wrong? 

Border Security Scam:

On of the first clues with this and many scams should be the accent of the scammer, the vast majority of telephone scams are originating in India, and the callers, incredibly, use British names.  That unto itself ought to be a clue that something is amiss, but if the scammer can get past such an obvious clue, the victim is ripe for the picking.

Border Security has noticed irregularities with your passport, or a package being shipped to you, and you will need to pay funds to clear the package through customs.  You may be asked about recent trips or purchases, the more information you provide the scammer with the more opportunity they have to weave a believable story.

Border Security scams are very similar to the CRA scams (see below) in that they involve authoritative characters, supposed government agents, threatening the victim with arrest and imprisonment.  Like all other scams they start with seeking relatively small amounts of money, but as the victim responds positively, they ask for more and more. 

CRA Scam:

Much like the Border Security scams the CRA scams also originate largely in India, and again the first clue is the name of the person calling.  If you have a genuine Indian CRA agent calling you it is highly unlikely they would have a British name.  Over the years my office has had many calls from real Indian CRA agents, and they have invariably had real Indian names.

The CRA is not going to arrest you for not paying your taxes, in fact they have no direct authority to do so, even though tax related crimes can be jailable offences.  Do not provide these scammers with your social insurance number, the CRA already has it.  And, the CRA has other mechanism for verification of who you are, like asking you to confirm the information on certain lines of your tax return.

If in doubt, hang up and call the CRA directly on a number you can confirm for yourself – not the number the so called CRA agent directs you to use.  You may also notice that the call originates from a local number that has been spoofed to make it appear that the caller is calling from a local phone.  When you call back on that number, most often, you will either find the phone is not in service or the person at the other end of the call has no idea who you are or what you are talking about.

The Inheritance Scam:

The inheritance scam often involves a deceased Nigerian oil billionaire who died without a will, and again that is the first test to see how susceptible you may be to being scammed.  I am of northern European extraction and any ancestors I have from Africa moved out centuries ago.  How is it possible for someone like me to believe that I am the last living relative of a deceased Nigerian?  The answer is, “it is not only possible, but it happens everyday”.

Once that preliminary test of disbelief is passed you will be told that lawyers, usually somewhere in Europe, are trying to repatriate you with your, three times removed, uncle’s fortune.  All you have to do is send $3,000 to register your interest in the money with the court.  After your claim has been “certified” you will be eligible to become the executor of the will and (sometimes) be entitled to draw a fee for your services.

Your executor’s fee will be deposited to your bank account, ensuring you believe the deal is real.  To keep score – you have paid $3,000 and will get $500 for your executor’s fee.  Then you may be asked to pay some legal fees, perhaps $5,000 to register the case in the Dutch (or some other country’s) court of adjustments.  And on it goes with you steadily and incrementally being drained of money.

Computer Repair Scam:

The computer repair scam takes many forms – it may start with a trojan or a cookie that was dropped on your computer signalling an alert, sometimes with an audible alarm and flashing icons to scare you.  Don’t panic, turn your computer off and restart it, most of the time that will be the end of it.  You can also clear out your cache memory, if you don’t know how to do that look it up on YouTube or ask a friend for help.

The computer repair scam is based on the fear that you will lose all of your data, documents, photographs, etc.  In some cases, spyware can lock up your device and information which can only be retrieved by paying a ransom (hence “ransomware”).  Do not on any account provide the scammer with passwords or any other personal information.  If your system has been hacked use a trustworthy company to clean it up.

Changing passwords regularly can be useful, system generated passwords can be extremely frustrating, hard to remember or stored in a cloud that may itself be hacked into.  Many of our passwords are collected through hacks of other computers, such as companies we have done business with.  A number of large technology companies have been hacked and the data has been used by hackers and scammers.

Final Thoughts:

YouTube has a number of pages showing how experts have been able to scam the scammers and in some cases hack into the scammers database and delete files.  Watching the videos is curiously satisfying, entertaining and provides us with more information about the scams work

Antennae up, stay alert, don’t believe everyone even if it does sound plausible, and always remember grandma’s axiom “if it is too good to be true, it probably is”.

One of the most telling signs of a scam is when you are asked to pay using gift cards – the CRA, Border Security and the love of your life will not be asking for gift cards.  O.K. the love of your life might.

I was able to chat with an Indian CRA scammer after calling him out, I asked how many calls he makes in a day, he said “hundreds” I also asked if he was on salary or commission (or both) he said, “no sir, this is my own company”.  I wanted to know how many people he had scammed and how much they were taken for, he replied, “five people” had paid that morning and “the average amount was for $3,000”.

I have seen people taken for well over $100,000 – make no mistake this is a growing industry and it is very evasive of law enforcement.