As the COVID-19 pandemic grinds on, Ottawa police are advising the community to be on the watch for several kinds of frauds that may be taking place.
As we spend more time at home, more time online, and perhaps are more isolated because of social distancing, there are fraudsters who seek to prey on us, says Ottawa Police Sgt. Chantal Arsenault.
Sgt. Arsenault spoke to Newstalk 580 CFRA's "The Goods with Dahlia Kurtz" on Sunday morning to outline some of the scams Ottawa police have been investigating.
"There's several new scams or scams on the rise because of COVID," she said. "It's been very difficult for some people. A lot of people have lost their jobs, they find themselves at home, lonely, and we're online more than ever."
The first rule of avoiding a scam, Arsenault says, is to never send money to a stranger.
"If you haven't met that person, no matter the consequences, you should never send money," she said.
Rule number two: If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.
"You really have to ask those questions. Is this such a great deal that it makes you want to jump on it really fast? Then you need to slow down and back up a little and think why this is such a great deal."
Here are some of the frauds Sgt. Arsenault says have targeted people in the community and what you and police can do about them.
Romance scammers use social media or online dating sites to pretend to be someone they're not. They will attempt to gain a victim's trust and then begin asking for money.
"Romance scams are very difficult to investigate," Sgt. Arsenault said. "Usually, as a victim of a romance scam, you'll be sending money to a victim of another scam. When we start investigating these frauds, the money is moved so many times from different bank accounts and the recipient of the money is also a victim."
Some advice for avoiding a romance scam is to be wary of people who ask for money or for you to cash a cheque for them, especially if you haven't met them in person. Romance scammers will frequently avoid meeting in person. These fraudsters may also request provocative pictures from you, which may be used to extort you later on.
"Pandemic puppies" have become popular in recent months. With more people spending more time at home during the pandemic, interest in getting new pets has been on the rise. This creates the possibility for fraudsters to trick you, Arsenault said.
"People are lonely, they want to get a puppy or a kitten, and they find a great deal online, but the breeder is far away and they put pressure on you," she said, "'I only have one or two puppies left and you need to send money to secure the puppy.' Turns out, there is no puppy. What usually happens is, especially if the puppy is from another province or far off, you'll send a down payment and then you'll get a request for more money, 'You need to buy a crate, you need insurance, there's issues at the border,' and it's never-ending."
Arsenault says victims sometimes feel trapped because they've already committed by sending money and feel as if they must continue.
Her advice is to once again never send money to someone you've never met, and to look for a new pet close to home.
"Try to find a breeder who is local. Get in the car, go for a drive, go look at the puppies. Make sure it's a reputable breeder. Look them up online," she said.
Rental scams involve fraudsters listing properties that either do not exist or that have already been rented to someone and then demanding first and last month's rent from the victim without allowing them to see the property.
Often, the fraudster will attempt to pressure a victim to sign quickly.
"There will be pressure for you to send money because this is a great deal and many people want the unit," Sgt. Arsenault said. "Never send money unless you meet the landlord or the property manager and you're able to visit the home. Usually, they'll use COVID as a reason why they can't show up but, if you can't meet the landlord or see the property, that's a huge red flag."
Often, the price will be below market rent and instantly available, which Arsenault said are other red flags.
Computer virus scam
With many people spending more time online, fraudsters will sometimes try and use the fear of computer viruses or malware to convince you to pay for a service that promises to rectify alleged issues with your machine.
"You're home, you're online a lot recently, you go to a websites maybe you weren’t familiar with, and next thing you know you get a pop-up on your screen saying your computer is full of viruses or malware and then there will be a link for you to click on," Sgt. Arsenault said.
"Never click that link."
Another way they may try and deceive you is by calling you on the phone, claiming to be from a software company, and saying they've detected problems with your machine.
"If you have not contacted someone to help you out with your computer and you get a call, that is a huge red flag. They will convince you to buy some prepaid plans or to buy some software for your computer to protect it. If you haven't made that call and you get that call, it should be a red flag," Arsenault said.
If you're worried about viruses or malware on your computer, take it to a reputable repair shop and never give out your credit card information to an unverified source.
Many people have lost their jobs because of the pandemic. Sgt. Arsenault says you should be cautious of unsolicited job offers that seem to good to be true.
"If you have posted your resume online and if you have not contacted a certain company but they contact you, just be very wary," she says.
In these cases, you'll be offered a well-paying job with very little trouble. In many cases, you'll then be sent money and told to buy items you'll need to do the job.
"They will want you to deposit that cheque and then they will say to go and buy certain things you'll need to do the job from home and then you'll need to forward the extra money back to them using bitcoin or pre-paid cards. Any time you hear the words 'bitcoin' or 'pre-paid card', that's a very, very big red flag."
Arsenault says to do your due diligence with not only the company but also any cheques they send you. Check with your bank and make sure it clears before spending any money and, as always, avoid sending money to people you've never met.
Advice to protect loved ones
As the COVID-19 pandemic keeps people isolated, especially older adults who are more at risk from the disease, Sgt. Arsenault says it's important to have conversations with loved ones who may be targets of fraud.
"As a community, we have to keep an eye out for the most vulnerable, especially during these times, and elders are definitely more at risk," she said. "Elders will get scammed but they're embarrassed and will not want to report the scam. If we have elderly parents, or just know elders in our community, have these conversations. When in doubt, have them call you as a friend if they don't want to call police. Usually, they're not as aware of these new trends."
If you are the victim of fraud and you haven't lost any money, you can report it through the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre online or at 1-888-495-8501 to file a report for statistical purposes.
If you have provided personal information but have not lost any money, can can contact the Ottawa Police Reporting Unit at 613-236-1222, extension 7300 to file a report, as a report cannot be filed online.
If you have lost money to a fraud, you're encouraged to contact the Ottawa Police Organized Fraud Section.
To prevent further loss of money, police say you should take the following steps:
Cancel your cards and notify your bank of the fraudulent activity.
Ignore any further communications from the subject and inform them that you have called the police if communication persists.
Keep all documentation until it is requested by an Investigator.