A file photo of RCMP vehicles outside the Yellowknife detachment. Sarah Pruys/Cabin Radio
A Yellowknife resident in her seventies says she has been conned into giving more than $30,000 to scammers.
The woman, who asked for anonymity to discuss a deeply embarrassing episode, said she had been persuaded to buy thousands of dollars in gift cards from a range of Yellowknife stores – then scan the cards and send those images to the criminals.
All the while, she thought she was helping her bank and the RCMP to carry out a sting operation on fraud suspects.
The woman hopes to recover most of the cash through the fraud protections associated with credit cards and some bank accounts, but has lost for good at least $5,000 in cash, if not more.
“It’s a ghastly thing. I consider myself a smart person, and it’s very embarrassing that I fell for this,” said the woman, who contacted Cabin Radio in a bid to spread the word about the presence of this form of scam.
“I really think that people have to be more aware of this,” she said.
The scam began when the woman received a call in June from a person who identified themselves as a representative of her bank, asking whether she had sent $2,100 to someone in the United States and spent a further $400 on eBay.
The woman had done no such thing, which she told the individual on the phone, who said the transactions had been identified as fraud. However, the woman at no point thought to check her account herself to see if those transactions had ever taken place.
The person on the phone – a fraudster posing as a bank employee – said they needed the woman’s help: a scam was taking place, they said, and she would be helping RCMP and the bank conduct a sting against employees of Yellowknife businesses suspected of carrying out credit card fraud.
In the days that followed, led along by the would-be bank employee, the woman used her Visa credit card until it was locked, used all the cash she kept in her house, agreed to empty her chequing account, and tapped into some of a savings account to keep the supply of gift cards going.
“I’ll admit that I thought, ‘Wow, I’m being a detective. This is exciting. I’m going to help catch these guys.’ So for four days, I was going around buying these goddamned cards,” she told Cabin Radio last week.
At one point, the woman had almost no money left for use during a medical trip to Edmonton because of her gift card purchasing.
She described being passed from the fake bank employee to a supposed RCMP officer on the phone. Even as she continued to believe in what was happening, she said she noted the oddity that both seemed to have similar accents, which she described as Indian in nature.
But she dismissed that suspicion as an example of her own bias, telling herself: “Don’t be judging people by the fact that they have accents.”
Many thousands of dollars had been spent by the time, after one phone call with the scammer, the woman thought to herself: “You know what, I should check this number.”
“He supposedly was in Toronto,” she said. “I checked that number. It’s a landline in Vancouver. I thought, ‘Shit. I’ve been had.'”
Scammers ‘persistent and convincing’
The woman is now receiving assistance from her bank’s actual fraud response team. Exactly how much of the money can be recovered is still to be determined.
Records show much of it was indeed transferred to or spent in India, the woman said she had been told.
RCMP in the Northwest Territories told Cabin Radio they have received 224 reports of fraud – of all varieties – since the start of 2022.
Gift card scams like the one the woman describes are increasingly common, and many people who might think they know better have fallen for them.
“Scammers can be very persistent and convincing. Being defrauded is never the victim’s fault. If you have been defrauded, you are not alone. Please report it to your local police,” said Cpl Matt Halstead, an NWT RCMP spokesperson, by email.
Never send money, gift cards, Bitcoin or anything else of value to someone you have never met in person, Halstead said.
“Sometimes, scammers will call and pretend to be from a legitimate organization and request you confirm your identity by providing details like your date of birth, social insurance number, credit card number etc,” he added.
“If you have not requested a call from an organization, do not provide this information over the phone. You can request a number to call the organization back and then confirm the number online.
“If you have a feeling that something is not right, it is best to trust your gut and stop communicating with that person.”
The woman told Cabin Radio she wants the NWT to introduce legislation that requires stores selling gift cards to conduct checks above certain amounts, as happens in some other Canadian jurisdictions. In some regions, store employees are required – at a certain threshold – to challenge the purchaser and raise the possibility that a scam might be taking place.
“It would be very, very good if this happened here,” the woman said.
“I bought these cards from both Independent stores, the Co-op, Canadian Tire, Staples, Esso, Shell – not one person asked me. Nothing.”
The woman said she still had access to some savings and investments, and acknowledged she was not in the dire position someone might reach if they gave everything they had to a scammer. She hoped a public warning might serve to help others avoid that fate.
“I live very frugally. I’m trying to retire. I live on $250 a month for food. I know the price of everything,” the woman said.
Reflecting on that approach, she added with only half a laugh: “Save your pennies, so that you can give it away in thousands to a scammer.”