Why the pandemic is open season for scammers
In one coronavirus-related scheme, victims receive a phony text or email asking for their SIN, personal and banking information to claim the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (Getty Images/MesquitaFMS)
As COVID-19 spread across the world, so too did scams exploiting people’s fears about the coronavirus. In recent months, schemers have been hawking free masks (you just pay the shipping!), fake testing kits, miracle cures and even cleaning services that claim to rid your air vents of the virus. Between March 6 and April 23, during which time Canadians were encouraged to stay home, the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre (CAFC) logged 643 fraud reports and 158 confirmed victims. Though likely short of the true total because fraud is not always reported, those figures represent a significant spike in fraudulent activity.
The pandemic has created the perfect working conditions for con artists. People are anxious, alone and online, digesting fear-inducing news and worrying about their health, jobs and high-risk relatives. “At this time, society has a heightened sense of anxiety and fear,” says Jeffrey Thomson, a CAFC criminal intelligence analyst. “It’s prime time for fraudsters. This is what an extortion scam is all about: You’re trying to create fear and anxiety in people to get them to react. Now people are more likely to be constantly in that state.”
In one of the more sinister coronavirus schemes, someone claiming to be the Canadian government sends a phony text or email directing you to provide your SIN, personal and banking information to claim the Canada Emergency Response Benefit. As Thomson points out, successful scams are a game of numbers, and since this one is going out in droves, it’s bound to take more victims.
Phishing, extortion and emergency scams are also on the rise, says Thomson. They can take many forms: A brand might offer you 20,000 loyalty points in light of the current situation, and then ask you to click a link and provide your personal information. Or a fraudster might impersonate a friend who’s stuck abroad and message you for emergency cash. One extortion scam that targeted the Chinese-Canadian community conned a victim out of $60,000, the largest known loss to coronavirus-related fraud, according to Thomson. (The sum has since been recovered.)
Fortunately, it’s easy to avoid these scams if you know the warning signs. Be suspicious if you didn’t initiate contact, don’t respond to fishy unsolicited messages, and think twice before clicking any links in a text or email. If a friend messages via social media for financial help, phone them to confirm. Verify websites claiming to be the government. When shopping online, make sure the seller is reputable. As for COVID-19 products, if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.
Still, if you get duped, collect details and events in chronological order and report them to police, the CAFC, the credit bureau and any other service providers involved. Even if you can’t recover your own money, you may help other Canadians keep theirs.