Why life under COVID-19 is playing into the hands of scammers

More people are working, shopping and conducting other business from home these days and authorities are concerned that could translate into more people falling victim to scams.

Jeff Thomson, RCMP senior intelligence analyst with the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre, said criminals are playing into pandemic trends of searching for financial aid, or for a furry friend for companionship.

“What you have is people having to stay home and … losing connections to family members and friends, and then relying increasingly on the internet and online activities to stay connected or carry out everyday routines,” Thomson said. 

“And we know frauds are designed to play on people’s emotions.”

In Nova Scotia, nearly 1,500 people lost a combined $2.3 million to fraud in the past four years.

Between March 6, 2020 and Jan. 31, 2021, there were over 11,000 reports of fraud related to COVID-19 in Canada. That meant nearly 10,000 people lost a combined $7 million.

“I’ve had people calling me saying that I owed back tax and and, if I don’t pay them, that they can have me arrested,” said J.D. Jacobs of Sydney, N.S. 

“I know enough not to believe it, obviously, but unfortunately that’s not the case for everyone.”

Payment requests and threats 

Sgt. Andrew Joyce of Nova Scotia RCMP said the number of people falling victim to scams is discouraging. 

For that reason, the provincial RCMP have changed their messaging.

Residents used to be asked to understand the pitch of a scam, such as common tactics and key phrases used. But RCMP are now asking that focus be placed on two key elements — payment requests and threats.

Joyce said it is a scam if someone is asking for money via cryptocurrency, gift cards or by wire transfer. He said it is also a scam if there are threatening messages that appear to be from legitimate businesses and government agencies.

“Knowing just these two things will greatly reduce our victims in this province year over year,” he said. “I’m certain of it.”

Joyce said that a person in Timberlea, N.S., lost nearly $900 in early February after a scammer sent an email confirming an online order.

The phony email provided a phone number to call. Police say the victim was eventually conned into purchasing a fake four-year subscription to a computer monitoring program.

The scammer claimed the purchase was made on their behalf due to the victim having a weak firewall.

Identify fraud doubles 

Authorities say scams may focus on different segments of the population, such as seniors or the unemployed.

But they emphasize that no one is immune. 

Thomson said the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre has discovered that identity fraud reporting doubled in 2020 alone.

“I called 2019 the year of the data breach and that continued into 2020,” said Thomson. 

“And now what we see is that information being used for fraud, right, used to apply for credit cards, open loans, or even as has been reported this year … fraudsters using information to apply for government benefits.”

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