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Coronavirus scams targeting seniors on the rise

Last Updated Apr 17, 2020 at 2:16 pm EDT

A text message scam related to COVID-19. CITYNEWS/Meredith Bond

One of the populations at a higher risk for COVID-19 is now also one of the biggest targets for fraudsters and scammers looking to prey on the most vulnerable during the pandemic.

As supports begin to roll out for those impacted by the virus, scammers are imitating governments to fraud seniors out of money. The Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) has already issued a warning to Canadians about fraudsters sending texts about the Canada Emergency Response Benefit.

The Canada Anti-Fraud Centre (CAFC) has received hundreds of reports from victims who have had their money or personal identification stolen. Senior advocacy organizations believe that number is much higher.

“We are seeing something we’ve never seen before,” said Laura Tamblyn-Watts, the CEO of CanAge. “It’s the perfect storm of targeting our vulnerable people.”

CanAge, the National Seniors’ Advocacy Organization, said that 92% of seniors live at home and not at long-term care homes. One in five subject to elder abuse which also includes frauds and scams.

Tamblyn-Watts adds that prior to the pandemic, elder financial abuse was already a billion dollar industry. In many cases, she said they aren’t only targeted once, but they become repeat victims who get added to a “sucker list,” that put them in open range of others.

“If you do get caught in a fraud or scam, first of all, don’t feel bad about it, it happens to everybody,” she said. “If you get caught, the information about who you are and what they found out about you is likely to be sold to other criminals and fraudsters. And what we see is people being targeted five, 10, 20 times a day.”

According to Tamblyn-Watts, frauds and scams are the least reported types of elder abuse. She has been targeted three times, including one email pretending to be from the Canadian government and telling her she qualified for emergency benefits,

Tamblyn-Watts states that agencies are seeing a 10% increase in calls regarding frauds and it’s creating overwhelming circumstances for the few services that exist.

This includes Elder Abuse Prevention Ontario, a group that operates a senior safety line which takes calls from members of the public.

Tamblyn-Watts states that although 211, a helpline for community and social services, has increased support, senior advocacy groups are operating with a limited budget at a time when 80% of calls aren’t going through.

“We urgently need the Minister for Seniors in Ontario to do [a] type of scale-up funding for Elder Abuse Prevention Ontario and the phone line they run, to just begin to deal with the issues that are coming in the door,” she said. “It’s important to remember we’re just at the beginning of this, and so we’re expecting it to get worse, not better.”

The Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre has long aired out warnings about frauds taking advantage of people, but with a full blown pandemic, the agency is now warning about fraud reporting tied to COVID-19.

In recent years, more and more victims have been falling for these frauds, losing a significant amount of money. In 2019, the CAFC responded to 58,003 reports where 22,919 victims lost over $133 million.

Last month alone, there were 6566 reports made and 2,317 victims who lost over $8.3 million. Since March 6, the CAFC has received 500 reports linked to COVID-19, where there were 90 victims who either lost money, were hacked, or had their personal information stolen.

Jeff Thomson, a Senior RCMP Intelligence Analyst with the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre, said these scams have emerged to take advantage of people during the public health crisis.

“Phishing remains the number one report, in particular we’re seeing mass messages going out asking people to click on links,” he said. “We’re also seeing a variety of merchandise scams, offering test kits, free face masks, hand sanitizers. [The] sort of items in high demands.”

In addition, Thomson said there’s also been scams claiming to have found a cure for the virus and emails about people testing positive for COVID-19 that is laced with malware.

This past weekend, the agency also saw an increase in extortion emails, where victims are told their computer has been hacked and they were caught committing sexual acts on camera.

In a recent extortion scam that targeted Canada’s Mandarin community, one victim lost $60,000 to a the scammer who was imitating the Beijing Police.

Thomson said since the victim reacted quickly and alerted the bank, they were able to recover some of the money they initially gave the fraudsters.

“Fortunate in this case, and that’s the key point,” Thomson said. “If you react fast enough, there might be opportunities to get your money back.”

The CAFC said the majority of victims don’t report the fraudsters, estimating the figures only represent five per cent of actual scams. Thomson said although seniors are likely to respond to the scams, anybody can be a target, especially during these unprecedented times.

“These scams are designed to hit anybody and everybody,” he said. “COVID has created an opportunity for fraudsters to take advantage of the isolation, the fear and anxiety that exist around the situation. Scammers prey into getting people in a state where they’re not thinking straight.”

Top COVID-19-related scams

The following descriptions have been provided to CityNews by the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre. The list includes things like fraudsters giving away merchandise, like masks, to charity scams asking for donations to go towards fighting the virus, and government impersonations.

Merchandise Scams

The CAFC has been receiving reports in which the fraudsters have claimed to be offering either free masks or offering masks for sale that protect against COVID-19. In the free mask pitch, Canadians are advised that they only need to pay for shipping in order to receive them. Canadians are asked to provide their credit card. To date, the CAFC has yet to see any victims associated to this type of offer so it’s unknown what kind of charges are placed on the victim’s credit card.

Canadians who have attempted to purchase masks online that claim to protect against COVID-19 have reported the fraudsters have been charging them immediately with the amounts varying on the amount of product ordered. The CAFC has yet to receive any reports that show victims actually receiving a product. In most cases, the victims have stated that they have attempted to return the fraudsters website only to find that it’s no longer active.

The CAFC has also received a report in which fraudsters claim to be selling COVID-19 test kits online.

The CAFC has received reports from consumers claiming to have received an email offering a “Miracle Oil” which can protect you from COVID-19. In order to get the product, consumers are advised to follow a link. The CAFC has yet to have any consumers go on the link so it’s currently unknown if the link asks for personal information or contains malware.

Phishing

Reporting indicates there is a large variety of phishing scams circulating.

Canadians are receiving phishing emails pretending to be linked to an Employment Insurance claims due to COVID-19 and that they are required to validate their information.

There are also reports of emails claiming to be from the Public Health Agency of Canada. The email claims to provide an update on COVID-19 and directs people to click on the link provided. Reports show that these links have asked for personal information but may also contain malware.

There are reports of fraudsters claiming to be from President’s Choice. Canadians are being offered 20,000 free optimum points due to the current COVID‐19 pandemic. In order to claim the points, consumers are being advised to follow the link and provide their information.

More recently, there are reports of Canadians receiving text message asking them to click on a link to receive their “Government of Canada benefit” or to verify their eligibility for financial aid due to COVID-19.

Charity Scams

CAFC has received a report from a consumer claiming to have received an email from WHO (World Health Organization). The email was asking for donations to fight COVID-19.

Consumers are advised that they can make payments through a secure digital wallet.

Survey Scams

Reports received indicate consumers are receiving emails appearing to come from Shoppers Drug Mart and claiming they have qualified for a special offer if they complete a 30-second survey.

This email claims it will help consumers “Survive the COVID-19”. The email directs consumers to click on a link for to access the survey.

It is believed the link will subsequently ask Canadians to pay for a delivery fee and may solicit personal and financial information.

Extortion Scam

CAFC received a report where a victim advised they received a call about a package being intercepted.

The suspect claimed that a package containing supposed COVID cure pills was sent to China using their name. The victim was advised that this was illegal and in order to not be in legal trouble, they would have to send money.

Another report indicates a call was received advising the consumer that they tested positive and requested the consumer to provide personal information.

Job Scam

CAFC is seeing reports of Canadians being offered employment.

The complainants are being advised that due to COVID-19, the interview and employment will be online.

The complainants are being told that the employment is to process payments and they will keep a percentage for their work.

In order to do so, complainants are being told that they are required to provide personal information and banking information in order to start the job. The CAFC has one victim who received funds directly into their account and returned the funds via Bitcoin.

Emergency Scam

CAFC has received reports from complainants claiming to receive emails from friends asking for financial aid. The suspect claim that they have COVID‐19 and require the funds for medical assistance. Complainants are asked to send funds via Email Money Transfer.

Tips to protect yourself from the CAFC:

  • Spoofed government, healthcare or research information;
  • Unsolicited calls, emails and texts requesting urgent action or payment and/or offering medical advice, financial relief, or government assistance and compensation;
  • If you didn’t initiate contact, you don’t know who you’re communicating to;
  • Never respond or click on suspicious links and attachments;
  • Never give out your personal or financial details;
  • Unauthorized or fraudulent charities requesting money for victims, products or research;
  • Don’t be pressured into making a donation;
  • Verify that a charity is registered;
  • High-priced or low-quality products purchased in bulk by consumers and resold for profit;
  • These items may be expired and/or dangerous to your health;
  • Questionable offers, such as:
    • Miracle cures;
    • Herbal remedies;
    • Vaccinations;
    • Faster testing.
  • Fake and deceptive online ads, including:
    • Cleaning products;
    • Hand sanitizers;
    • Other items in high demand.

How to make a report:

By phone: 1-888-495-8501 (toll free), Monday to Friday, from 10 am to 4:45 pm, eastern time.

Online: Fraud Reporting System