Bernie Townsend doesn’t like talking about how she lost $4,000 to scammers. However, she feels compelled to talk.
She sits in a chair at Edmonton’s Fraud Prevention Month kickoff and laughs a little uncomfortably as she describes the day she ran all over town giving away her money.
“I became a crazy lady going all over the place,” Townsend says.
Her husband had always looked after the taxes. When he died, Townsend hired an accountant and she admits she didn’t know a lot about how the tax system works.
When she received a call from someone claiming to be with the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) telling her she owed them money, she listened and decided, “If I have to pay it, I have to pay it. I’m an honest citizen. I don’t want to defraud the government.”
Then things got strange. The caller said she couldn’t just go to Canada Place with a cheque. She had to pay now and she had to use Bitcoin.
So Townsend ran all over the city, depositing money into Bitcoin ATMs before she found a note on one machine saying “CRA deposits are a scam.”
Townsend is telling her story at the beginning of Fraud Prevention Month because she and police say it’s important for victims to speak out and let others know they’re not alone.
Statistics show victims have a lot of company.
From Jan. 1, 2017 until Feb. 26, 2018, 111 people reported falling victim to the CRA scam. Fraudsters took $311,736.21 from them.
The scam is evolving. Last year, more than 75 per cent of the cash that went to scammers was sent using Bitcoin. The crypto currency makes it even more difficult for police to track and investigate.
Fraudsters are also changing up the CRA pitch.
This year, police have begun to hear reports of fraudsters telling victims they’re eligible for a tax rebate. All they have to do is give them financial and personal information.
The rebate never comes but thieves take out loans in the victims’ names and rack up bills on their credit cards.
Another new scam targets Chinese-Canadians. Someone phones the victim claiming to be from the Chinese consulate. They say the person is under investigation by the Chinese government. They transfer the call to a fake prosecutor. They send the victim to a fake website that shows a fake warrant for the person’s arrest. Then they demand money.
The Chinese deputy-consul general says it’s a big problem. Zhenting Gao hears about the scam “a lot.”
“Sometimes 20 telephone calls a day to my office,” he says.
He has heard of one Edmonton student who lost $650,000 to the fraud and another member of the Chinese-Canadian community who lost $1.5 million.
All the scams are a growing concern to Edmonton police.
“Absolutely, they’re getting better,” says Det. Linda Herczeg with the Edmonton Police Service’s Economic Crimes Unit. “It’s expanding. It’s growing. It’s not going to stop. We need to educate people. We need to give them the tools they need to deal with it.”
Police want people to recognize the signs of a fraud. If it’s too good to be true, it is.
Legitimate organizations don’t demand you use Bitcoin. Think about why a caller would need specific personal information like bank account numbers and passwords. If you’re worried, hang up, look up the number for the organization that is claiming to call you and call them back.
Throughout Fraud Prevention Month, police and government officials plan to release the stories of multiple fraud victims. Each will tell his or her story in the hopes of connecting with others.
Police want anyone who has been a victim of fraud to contact them.