Scamming nightmares

Identity fraud has become a problem with an increase in internet scams

Photo by Will Huang
Photo by Will Huang

The last thing you want during a week of -30⁰C weather is for your hydro to get shut off. And if your roommate has been known to forget to pay the bills, it may not seem so outlandish when you receive a phone call from the hydro company saying you’ve missed a payment and they’ll be disconnecting you if you don’t pay over the phone immediately.

Unfortunately, those who fall prey to these calls have been scammed.

Waterloo North Hydro is warning customers about phone calls like this, in which individuals are pretending to be company representatives and are asking people to pay using specific pre-paid credit cards.

According to Jeff Quint, manager of energy conservation and corporate communications at Waterloo North Hydro, the frequency of phone scams impersonating Waterloo North Hydro started increasing in July. He said another influx of calls began in December.

“Now we’re getting bombarded with it on a daily basis,” he continued.

In the past, the calls have been to residential customers. But this time around, Quint said they seem to be targeting businesses.

“They’re preying on people that can’t afford to have their electricity cut off,” he said. “Unfortunately, people fall prey to this just from not knowing how we would operate.”

Quint explained that the callers sound very professional.

They pretend to have customers’ account numbers, taking advantage of the fact that most people don’t have theirs memorized.

In 2013, police investigated 1,427 cases of fraud in Waterloo Region. There were 266 complaints about identity fraud and 59 about identity theft filed by the Waterloo Regional Police Service.

Robert Cowan, detective sergeant from the investigative services major fraud unit at WRPS, looks at major frauds, which are cases over $10,000. In the last three to four years they have seen an influx in online scams, he said.

“Organized crime has realized that we’ve become so reliant on email communications that they’re exploiting that now,” he said.

An example of this is online banking fishing emails. People believe they’re receiving an email from their bank, requesting their username and password. This information gets sent directly to the criminals behind the scam.

Ashley Proctor, a fourth-year business student at Wilfrid Laurier University, said she has encountered a similar scam before.

“I got a notification from Scotiabank when I tried to log in online,” she said. “It said I had tried to access my account too many times and I needed to give them all my information and they were going to close my online account. So I thought that sounded weird.”

Cowan continued that in some cases criminals are rerouting people’s mail and gathering your personal information that way.

Next, Cowan believes criminals will begin targeting cell phones.

Mike Rudd, a fourth-year business student at Laurier, said he has encountered scams on Kijiji, where someone replied to his advertisement and wanted him to provide them with his PayPal information because they were on a cruise.

“I just googled cruise ship rental scam and it popped up,” he said.

Cowan said a big issue is the amount of information people include on their social media profiles and how lax their privacy settings are.

“Organized crime is targeting places like Facebook and harvesting people’s personal information from there.”

These criminals need very little information to commit fraud. A case at the University of Waterloo involved individuals losing their wallets, but having everything returned to them. All the person who had their wallet did was take their personal information and then used this to make big purchases out of province.

“All they need to do is harvest some minimal tombstone information off social media and it’s a recipe for fraud,” Cowan said.

He also cautioned about including resumes on LinkedIn and other sites where people can easily gather your information.

Cowan recommended people get yearly reports from a credit monitoring company to ensure there is no unusual activity, such as credit cards or phones that are under your name but aren’t yours.

“Now it’s a lot easier to sit at home with a laptop and a WiFi connection and you can do a lot more damage and make a lot more money doing online fraud.”

This also means the criminals are harder to catch. Cowan said they have been successful with cases that remain within North America, but anything overseas makes things more difficult.

“It’s a huge nightmare,” he said. “On average it takes about 400 hours to get your identity restored once you’ve been compromised.”

A majority of the time, Cowan said people who fall for the scams are motivated by greed, thinking they can get rich off of a lottery scam, for example.

“For the most part, people need to step back and ask themselves some basic questions. Common sense does prevail if you have it. Some people, they don’t.”

Waterloo North Hydro doesn’t ask for payments over the phone and won’t disconnect hydro out of the blue. They try multiple ways and on multiple occasions to let customers know they have payments due.

“We don’t have a truck down the street waiting to do these things,” said Quint. “We’re here to keep our customers electrified, we don’t sit around and wait for things to happen so we can go disconnect people — that’s not the way we function.”


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