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Fraud Files: An instant connection

It’s one thing to hear about common scams — it’s another to recognize it when it happens to you. To help you spot the warning signs of fraud, we share real-life stories of the types of scams we encounter every day. To protect the identities of those involved, names and details of this story have been changed. As you read the story, try to identify what type of fraud occurred and catch the red flags of the scam.
 

What happened

Leticia never expected to find love online. She certainly wasn’t looking for it. And it came from the most unlikely of connections.
 
Leticia’s late husband had passed away three years before, and she commemorated his birthday each year with a short tribute on Facebook. After posting this year’s tribute, she received a direct message from a man named Michael. “I’m so sorry to hear about your husband’s passing,” he told her. “He was an incredibly caring person.”
 
Michael explained that he had gone to university with Leticia’s late husband, but because he had been overseas in the military for the past few years, he only received the news recently. Leticia hadn’t heard of Michael, but they had several mutual friends on Facebook, and he shared plenty of stories from their university days. Leticia appreciated the connection, and soon found herself messaging him several times a day. She never intended to begin an online relationship, but things seemed to progress so naturally, the pair, both in their mid-sixties, decided to give things a try.
 
Up until this point, Leticia and Michael (or Mike, as she now called him), had talked mainly through Facebook Messenger, and a few times over the phone (the camera on Mike’s laptop was broken, so he wasn’t able to do a video call). But Leticia was ready to meet him in person, and started making plans to travel to his hometown in Ontario.
 
That’s when Mike got the bad news. He had just received word that he was being deployed for another tour of duty, and was leaving in the next few days. Travel plans had to be put on hold.
 
The next few months were a blur for Leticia. Communication became scarce, and she worried for Mike’s safety. Mike was also running into problems accessing his money overseas, and asked for Leticia’s help. She trusted that he would repay her when he finished his tour, so Leticia started sending cash. At first, the sums were small enough that Leticia was able to withdraw at an ATM, but a sudden emergency at Mike’s base caused him to need $12,000. Again, he promised to pay it all back when he returned, and Leticia had some retirement savings she could tap into. How could she refuse help to a man who was putting his life on the line to serve his country?
 

The scam

When Leticia headed over to the nearest SCU branch and requested the withdrawal, the teller had a few questions about her story, and called an SCU compliance officer for a second opinion. They suspected Leticia was a victim of a romance scam, and explained the following red flags:
 

  1. The person is only able to call or text: Scammers will choose occupations that will keep them from meeting up in person, like an oil rig operator or military personnel. In addition, they’ll use excuses like broken phones or cameras to prevent video calls.

  2. The person asks you to send money: In some cases, scammers will ask for cash or wire transfers, and get you to lie about the reason so financial institutions don’t get suspicious. Or they will send you a fake cheque and ask you to send back an Interac e-Transfer® (you can read our mobile deposit story for more information on this fraud type). In a more recent variation of the scam, the person you’re in a relationship with encourages you to invest in fake cryptocurrency, which all goes back in the scammer’s pocket.

  3. The person only has an online presence: It’s easy for scammers to make a fake profile online, and they’ll often befriend other people in your circle to make them seem like an actual person (and in some cases, they are impersonating an actual person). It’s important to do your due diligence beyond checking the mutual friends list. Do a reverse Google image search to see if there are other profiles using the same picture. Check if their account was created recently. Ask your friends and family about them — do they actually know who this person is, and have they heard from them recently?

  4. The person’s story constantly changes: One day it’s a family or medical emergency. The next, it’s a renovation or a gift for the grandchildren. Any time you receive a request, slow down and ask yourself, “Am I seeing a pattern here? Do the facts of this story make sense?”

  5. The person keeps you isolated from your friends or family: Scammers know that isolation makes you more vulnerable. After all, it can be hard to look at logical facts when your heart is involved. That’s why a trusted friend or family member, who can help you sort fact from fiction, is one of your best defenses against romance scams.

 

What happens on our side

As a financial institution, we require our frontline staff to look out for unusual transactions, and recognize the warning signs of fraud. If we ask you questions, it’s not to invade your privacy — it’s to protect you from sophisticated crime groups that work to pull off scams like this one. After all, these scams are designed to be effective — which is why romance scams accounted for the second-highest amount in reported losses in 2021.1
 
Although Leticia had unfortunately already sent a few thousand dollars to Mike, the teller and compliance officer were able to catch the fraud before she sent the $12,000 cash deposit. The compliance officer encouraged Leticia to report the incident to the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre (CAFC), an organization that works to train people on how to recognize and report fraud. In addition, the compliance officer pointed out that scammers are likely targeting more than one person at a time, and encouraged Leticia to report Michael’s fraudulent profile to Facebook administrators.
 
 
Key takeaway: When it comes to online relationships, pay attention to anything that doesn’t make sense. If anyone asks for funds, reach out to a trusted friend, or contact us for a second opinion.
 

Does this story sound familiar?

If this has happened to you, or someone you know, here’s how you can report it: scu.mb.ca/fraudprevention/reportfraud

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