Top scams of 2011

No one wants to hand over their hard-earned cash to a criminal, but scammers continue to find sneaky ways to get people to part from their money. Scams can prey on our fears or exploit our good intentions — and leave us feeling helpless, angry and embarrassed.

With the new year approaching, we’re getting a look at what scams made the rounds in Canada last year. Experts warn to watch out for these top offenders well into 2012.

Computer virus scam

It’s been popular in Europe for a while, but took off here in 2011. Here’s how it works: You get a call supposedly from a reputable company (like “Microsoft” or “Windows”) warning the company has received a virus notification or error message from your computer. Don’t worry: the “helpful” caller can fix the problem for you — first they’ll want access to your computer, then they’ll want a fee — charged to your credit card, naturally. He or she might also try to sell you an anti-virus software subscription that you’ll pay for every month. 

Experts say don’t be alarmed if you receive one of these calls — just hang up. Reputable companies don’t make such calls, and you should be suspicious of anyone asking for access to your computer or your credit card information. If you think you’ve been a victim, police recommend calling your credit card company to get the charges reversed.

Fake prizes or lotteries

Congratulations! You’re a winner in a contest you don’t remember entering. In order to claim your prize or free gift, you’ll need to pay a fee, pay the taxes or make a purchase. Too bad your prize never comes.

Experts say these scams aren’t new, but they are branching out. Sometimes they can start with a survey or entry box at the mall or an entry form you submit in the mail. You think you’ve entered a contest but what you actually did was give scammers your contact information — and a credible reason to call.

How can you protect yourself? Be very careful to whom you give your information, and remember that you should never have to spend money or make a purchase to claim a prize.

Fake cheque scams

Oops! Your interested buyer or potential tenant mistakenly wrote you a cheque for too much money. Now he or she wants you to cash it and wire them the difference. Unfortunately, your money will be long gone by the time the cheque bounces. The scammer could have a clever cover story — like claiming to be an international student coming to Canada looking for a room to rent.

These scams have topped the list for a couple of years now, and experts warn they will continue to hit business owners and landlords alike. Be aware of this scam if you’re selling or renting — especially if you’re advertising online — and make it a point to only conduct business in person. Try to avoid taking cheques, if possible. (Read more about suspicious cheques.)


Merchandise or sales scams

Buyer and seller beware: If fake e-commerce sites and online auction scams weren’t bad enough, scammers are happy to adopt the role of buyer or seller. As a buyer, you could end up paying for something that you didn’t want — like a counterfeit item or poor quality replacement — if you receive anything at all. When buying online, it’s best to stick to services and people you can trust and read the fine print (especially when it comes to returns and refunds).

As a seller, you could face theft from a “potential buyer” who could use false payment information or a bogus cheque to buy your goods. One of the latest tricks is to use counterfeit cash to pay for sought after items like electronics. Until those new plastic bills come in to use, police advise to use caution when handling cash — and make sure you know at least three methods for telling real bills from the fakes.

Service scams

Service scams continue to be the top scam in Canada, according to the Canadian Anti-Fraud Call Centre. These scams involve paying for something the scammer doesn’t deliver — like help selling a timeshare property, home renovations or debt settlement services. Experts recommend getting to know any company with whom you’ll be doing business — verify their contact information, do an internet search to see what people are saying, and look them up with the Better Business Bureau.

Sometimes “servicemen” show up on your doorstep wanting to inspect your home or fix your furnace.  Again, experts warn that legitimate companies don’t do business this way. If you don’t know who is at the door and you weren’t expecting company, you don’t have to open the door.

Grandchild or friend in trouble scams

Your loved one is stranded, in jail or in the hospital far away from home. The heart-wrenching stories change, but the scam is the same: a crook calls pretending to be a grandchild or relative who got into trouble while travelling abroad. They need you to wire cash to them right away — but don’t tell anyone! The crooks don’t want you asking too many questions or verifying the story with other friends or family.

(One Ontario woman lost $3000 to this scam, according to Goldhawk Fights Back.) Scammers often look to people’s social networking sites and blogs for details they can use to gain victims’ trust.

However, grandkids aren’t the only ones landing in trouble these days — friends and family members are fair game. Crooks hack into email accounts and send distress messages to that person’s contacts. One common story is that the person had their wallet, tickets and passport stolen and now they can’t get home.

In short, crooks are counting on you to help your loved one, no questions asked. However, questions should be our first line of defense (that is, if you don’t hang up or hit delete first). If you think the communication might be real, call the person in question or their family to verify the circumstances before you do anything else. Chances are the person was safe at home all along.

Nigerian Scams

There are many versions of the Nigerian or 419 Scam floating around — and you’ve likely seen a few versions over the years. The email or fax says a foreign employee or government official needs your help getting millions of dollars out of the country. In return, you’re promised a hefty percentage of the funds. However, the crooks are the only ones who will see any money — yours! You may be asked to pay taxes or fees, sometimes on an ongoing basis.

While the scam may seem obvious, experts warn it’s constantly evolving — and people are still falling for it. Scammers can fake government contacts and documents to make the scheme seem like a legitimate venture. In some cases, victims have even been lured to Nigeria, according to Experts warn this scam can put your safety at risk along with your bank account, so it’s best to ignore those emails and faxes. (Scambusters has a good example of this scheme here.)

Online dating and friendship scams

Today, an increasing number of people are looking for romance online, but what they find is someone eager to prey on their trusting nature. Scammers strike up a relationships with their victims through emails and online messages — and fake profiles and attractive pictures sweeten the deal. Then, the crooks exploit their victims’ generous nature with pleas for financial help — often with a believable sob story of hardship or tragedy. Only you can help — and he or she needs you to wire money or cash a cheque.

Unfortunately, this scam isn’t limited to finding love — “online friends” can use the same tactics.

How can you protect yourself? Experts say it’s fairly simple: be aware of signs of the scam (like being asked to cash a cheque or wire money for a sudden emergency) and never send money to someone you don’t know. Police warn that once wired money has been picked up, there’s no way to trace the criminals.

Phishing and spoofing scams

Crooks want more than your cash — your personal and financial information can lead to a bigger payoff. Not only will crooks use it to access your credit cards and bank accounts — or steal your identity — they can also sell it to other criminals. Even if you shred everything and keep financial information private, there are other ways they can catch you.

By now you’ve likely heard of phishing emails — those seemingly legitimate emails from your bank that require you to “verify your account information”. However, scammers can also catch victims through online surveys or quizzes. In person, fake surveys or contests at the mall or a trade show could catch you off guard.

In short, ignore those suspicious emails — or call your bank if you think there really is a problem. Remember, once you’ve given away your information you can’t take it back.

Social media scams

Scams aren’t limited to email, phone and fax — your Twitter or Facebook account could also be the source. Like email, crooks can hack into people’s accounts and send or post messages to that person’s connections. Since the message seems like it’s coming from someone you know, you’re more likely to believe it. These scams could take a variety of forms — like inviting you to apply for scholarship or grant money, asking you to send money for an “emergency” or inviting you to click on a harmful link.

Sometimes scams tap into another worry: that your privacy has been violated. If you receive a message asking “is that you in this funny video” or claiming “I found these pictures of you online”, it can be tough to resist the urge to look. The solution? Treat these posts just like you would any other spam — ignore them. If you see a post that seems out of character, it could be the work of hackers.

While these scams are some of the top ones out there, other scams are alive and well — like employment scams, vacation scams and investing scams. We might not be infallible, but the best weapon we have is to be knowledgeable enough to avoid them.

For more information on common scams, how to avoid them and how to report them, visit the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre (formerly PhoneBusters) and visit our Fight Fraud section.

Sources: the Better Business Bureau, the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre, CBC News,, the Vancouver Police Department