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Experts warn young consumers about online fraudsters during Fraud Prevention Month


CALGARY — Toronto's Amanda George says she was indulging in some late-night retail therapy when she made a $300 impulse buy from an unfamiliar website just before Christmas.

Weeks later, instead of the infrared sauna blanket she expected, all she had was growing frustration as the supplier made vague promises in response to her email messages, when it got back to her at all.

"The merchant promised to deliver the goods and never did," said the 31-year-old sales engineer, still fuming. She did some online searching and found plenty of red flags, including fellow victims with similar complaints.

March is Fraud Prevention Month and provincial securities regulators are using the occasion to warn consumers of the dangers that lurk online, especially for those who rush in without stopping to consider the risks.

The British Columbia Securities Commission has a campaign focused on millennials that warns of FOMO – the Fear of Missing Out – while the Nova Scotia Securities Commission is premiering a new fraud prevention video series on its YouTube channel and virtually visiting high schools and universities. 

Meanwhile, the Alberta Securities Commission is giving young adults some tongue-in-cheek excuses to deflect and defer hard-sell pitches by pushy sales agents and potential fraudsters through its online “Excuse Bot."

“I’ll circle back later this week,” the virtual assistant offers when asked what the response should be to a online loan offer that requires an upfront fee.

“I’ve finished the easy parts of my jigsaw puzzle and now all that’s left is sky. So, as you can imagine, I’m all booked up for the next few days.”

To another request, it responds: “I'll have to get back to you. There’s a full moon coming up and I need to charge my crystals.”

The responses are deliberately humorous, said Hilary McMeekin, director of communications and investor education with the ASC, to best appeal to 18- to 30-year-olds.

"We need to reach them where they are at, and they're online," she said, noting the campaign is being promoted on TikTok, Instagram, Reddit and Facebook.

"Nobody wants another parental lecture. They want to have some fun. And they want to be connected to relevant, helpful, unbiased and free information resources."

According to the 2020 Canadian Securities Administrators Investor Index Report, fraud incidence is rising among those under 35. About 23 per cent of 18- to 30-year-olds in Alberta say they’ve been approached about a possibly fraudulent scam, the ASC says.

Getting potential investors or consumers to stop and investigate before entering their credit card numbers online is good advice, said Jessie St-Cyr, communications agent for the Better Business Bureau in Ottawa.

"We didn't create an 'Excuse Bot' but that's a great idea, I think, to give young people more tips to deal with these scammers,” she said.

"Just to take the time, that's one of the best tips in how to avoid falling victim to any type of scam.”

The COVID-19 pandemic meant more people were doing business and shopping online and that had a substantial affect on the bureau’s Top 10 list of scams in 2020, she said.

As an example, rising interest in buying pets led to a surge in puppy scams, where fraudsters use stock photos of cute canines to convince people to advance big down payments to get in line for a dog that never finds its way home.

The pandemic has also seen a rise in unemployment, which can lead to people falling prey to ads that offer ways to make money at home by day trading or foreign-exchange trading — though they really just want to collect a fee, McMeekin said.

Both St-Cyr and McMeekin hope the Fraud Prevention Month campaigns lead to higher reporting of possible fraud incidents, even if the complainants aren't 100 per cent sure it's illegitimate.

As for Amanda George, who eventually got a refund from her credit card company for the blanket she didn't receive, she said she's learned the hard way that it pays to investigate before buying.

"No one's really monitoring this information," she said.

"You've really got to do your due diligence, go through reviews, check forums, vet the website, make sure they have a customer service team, a number, an address, just something."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 18, 2021.

Dan Healing, The Canadian Press

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