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Shoppers warned to watch out as online scams reach all-time high

BBB Vancouver Island head says fraudsters are at their peak during times of crisis, when consumers are dealing with rising inflation and interest rates and holiday shopping madness at the same time
In response to an increasing number of online transactions, in part due to the pandemic, fraudsters have filled social media feeds with deals that look too good to be true, says the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre. AP Photo/Jeff Chiu

Consumers are being warned to be extra-vigilant with online purchases as holiday-shopping time ticks down and desperation increases to find that perfect gift.

The Better Business Bureau of Vancouver Island, local police and the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre say scams are at an all-time high.

Rosalind Scott, chief executive of the BBB Vancouver Island, said fraudsters are at their peak during times of crisis like right now, when consumers are dealing with rising inflation, increasing interest rates and holiday shopping madness all at the same time.

“People, when they’re desperate to get a little bit more money, are more quick to believe these scams, because they want it to be true,” she said.

Scott said the amount of online fraud is immense, although only about five per cent of people actually report that they’ve been scammed. “But we do know literally millions and millions of dollars are lost every year.”

The Better Business Bureau’s Scam Tracker reported online-shopping-scam losses at more than $380 million US across North America last year, an 87 per cent increase since the tracker was launched in 2015.

The tracker noted that nearly 36 per cent of all online retail fraud reports stemmed from a fake website, and scammers used social media and email to initiate about 40 per cent of reported scams.

In a bulletin issued just before Black Friday and Cyber Monday, the two busiest online shopping days of the year, the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre noted that in response to an increasing number of online transactions, in part due to the pandemic, fraudsters have filled social media feeds with deals that look too good to be true, while “spoofing” websites and email addresses — creating addresses that look like they come from a trusted or legitimate source — to lure unsuspecting consumers.

“Unfortunately, fraudsters and cybercriminals use holiday promotions to continue to victimize people,” said Chris Lynam, the centre’s director general. “The best way to protect yourself and those around you is by learning what fraud and cybercrime looks like and report it.”

That means consumers should watch for red flags like prices that seem too low, payment processes that are not straightforward, websites that look poorly designed, stores that omit key information like return policies, privacy policies and contact information, online stores that don’t have security elements or that make spelling errors within the URL of the website.

Scott said spoofing email addresses, in particular, is becoming very sophisticated and it’s easy for consumers to get caught up in illegitimate sites.

“They’re getting super good at replicating sites — they can make fraudulent sites look totally legitimate,” she said. “That’s why people are more quickly falling for these things. The answer to the entire problem is don’t take anything at face value when you haven’t reached out to an entity.”

Victoria police Const. Terri Healy said it’s likely that online fraud is under-reported, as it’s difficult to investigate and most people deal directly with their credit card companies and financial institutions.

Healy said consumers can protect themselves by shopping with trusted online retailers, checking their credit card and bank statements regularly for any suspicious or unknown activity and avoiding offers that seem “too good to be true.”

“The best defence against fraud is education and awareness. If someone is the victim of a fraud or a scam, talk about it. Tell your friends, family, co-workers.”

The Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre says consumers should never save credit card information in a web browser, and they should make online purchases through personal Wi-Fi networks, not public ones. If purchases must be made on public networks, use cellular data or set up a virtual private network. They also advocate doing research, reading reviews and using common sense.

The centre reported that in 2021, frauds associated with buying or selling goods or services online accounted for more than $21.1 million in losses in Canada.

Through the first 10 months of this year, $420 million worth of fraud of all kinds has been reported across the country by more than 47,000 victims.

Anyone who has been a victim of a cybercrime, a fraud or scam, is advised to contact their local police or the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre at 1-888-495-8501.

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