Fraudsters are proving to be nimble, crafty and creative when it comes to exploiting the vulnerabilities, behaviours and dreams of Canadians. Seeking a partner can leave you exposed to “romance scams,” wanting to help family and friends may prompt you to hand over money for a “grandchild scam.” And schemes that play on your desire to be healthy and slim may promise that extra pounds can be shed with no or little effort, tout a “guaranteed cure” for serious conditions or offer rock-bottom prices for medication without asking for a prescription.
“Health scams take advantage of people who are suffering, and that is very troubling,” says Josephine Palumbo, deputy commissioner, Cartels and Deceptive Marketing Practices Branch, Competition Bureau Canada. “Before you buy anything like this or sign on the dotted line, use your common sense: If it sounds too good to be true, it usually is.”
Miracle cures, weight loss programs and fake online pharmacies are three of the most common health scams, says Ms. Palumbo. They are often promoted on social media or websites and may look like legitimate alternative medicines and treatments and sometimes appear to be endorsed by celebrities or people claiming they have been cured.
“Fraudsters are becoming increasingly sophisticated, so it’s important to question the legitimacy of such offers. Remember the three Rs – they stand for ‘recognize, reject and report’ fraud,” she recommends. “We believe that knowledge is power. When Canadians are better informed, they are less likely to become victims of fraud.”
Educating Canadians about various types of fraud and providing advice on how they can better protect themselves is contained in the Little Black Book of Scams, the second edition of which was launched in 2018. “It introduces six fraud-fighting superheroes addressing 12 of the most prevalent scams in Canada,” says Ms. Palumbo, who stresses the need to report fraudulent activities to the authorities.
“When law enforcement agencies are able to gather information and evidence, they can bring fraudsters to justice and better protect consumers and businesses,” she says. “However, the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre estimates that only about 5 per cent of fraud is reported to the authorities.”
Why does the overwhelming majority of fraud go unreported? “People may feel embarrassed about falling for a particular scam, or they may believe it takes too much time or isn’t worth the effort,” says Ms. Palumbo. “Yet it doesn’t matter whether the sum you lost is small. When you multiply it by the number of people affected, you see that the impact is so much bigger.”
Reporting scams can help to prevent fraudsters from taking advantage of others. In 2018, for example, the Competition Bureau stopped an untested weight-loss device from being sold in Canada when it reached an agreement with Thane Canada to pay a $350,000 fine and not market its electronic muscle stimulation devices AbTronic X2 and AbCommand iX2.
“Fraud is a crime that can carry severe penalties, including prison sentences of up to 14 years, under the Criminal Code,” says Ms. Palumbo. “And we also have civil provisions that allow us to come to a resolution with companies, for example, in cases where we find a lack of adequate and proper testing supporting performance claims rather than an outright intent to deceive.”
Stopping and exposing scams can result in substantial savings. The Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre estimates that Canadians lost over $500-million from January 2014 to December 2018, and $97-million in 2018 alone, says Ms. Palumbo. “Fraud threatens all Canadians, regardless of their education, age or income. No one is immune.”
Awareness about fraud is already growing. The 2018 Fraud Prevention Month campaign reached over 32 million people via traditional media and eight million people via social media. The hashtag #fpm2018 trended twice on Twitter as one of the top 10 topics discussed in Canada, says Ms. Palumbo, who invites Canadians to “join the conversation. Together, we can curb this kind of behaviour that is costing our society so much money and causing so much harm.”
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