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OPINION: Awareness is the best possible defense

Romance scams.
Romance scams. - 123RF Stock Photo

Peter Moorhouse

Guest Opinion

Before you read further, picture in your mind the victim of a scam.

Got it? OK, read on.

Let me guess. You were picturing an elderly man or woman, possibly living alone, vulnerable, because they’re not that savvy about scammers that show up at their door, or in their email inbox. Am I right?

The truth of the matter is that the typical scam victim is much, much younger. Make no mistake, seniors can certainly be vulnerable. But in fact, the Better Business Bureau’s most recent Scam Tracker Risk Report identified that the most likely age group to have been victimized by a scam is 18-24.

The reason for this is mostly the frequency of exposure. The most common scams today are either exclusively online or have an online aspect. Younger people spend most of their lives online, and therefore are at greater risk. This is compounded by an illusion of invulnerability; they don’t think they’d fall for anything, so there is a greater likelihood that they will.

BBB’s Risk Report looked at data from 50,559 scam reports submitted through 2018 from across North America, and the trends are intriguing. Susceptibility decreases with age. The older someone is, the less likely – statistically speaking – they are to have been victimized. Unfortunately, with older victims, the median dollar value reported lost increases. Fewer seniors are losing money to scammers, but when they do, they’re losing more.

Employment scams featured prominently on our lists again this year, with a reported $4.5 million lost. In fact, they were the most commonly-reported scams in the 18-24, 25-34, and 45-54 age ranges. Generally, it starts when the victim uploads their resume to an online job search site. The victim is contacted by someone posing as an employer. Sometimes there’s an interview, but never in person – it’s always over the phone or even by online chat. The offer comes through, and it’s generous (too good to be true, some might say!). One of the newly-hired employees’ duties is to cash a cheque, purchase a few things, and wire transfer the balance to a third party. When the “employee” gets a call from their bank, letting them know that the cheque was counterfeit, it’s already too late. Their money – sometimes well into the thousands of dollars – is gone.

Topping the list this year in Canada were romance scams. The approach in these cases is most often through social media. The victim gets a friend request, then a message from someone who expresses romantic interest. Over time, the relationship blooms. The suitor is everything the victim has ever wanted – attentive, loving, caring. They’ve always got a ready excuse for why they can’t meet in person, but despite that, it’s love. Then one day, the suitor needs money. Maybe their child is sick, or they need to travel to be with their parents. The victim sends money. Then they send more, because their love has run into another problem. And with each payment, it becomes harder to admit they’ve made a mistake, and therefore harder to stop.

Canadians reported $22.5 million lost to romance scams in 2018. Sadly, we know that this number is likely much lower than the actual losses, since the shame and embarrassment associated with this kind of scam results in underreporting.

Why do we collect all this information? Sunlight, as the saying goes, is the best disinfectant. The more light we can shine on the devious ways scammers take money from their victims, the fewer potential victims there are. Awareness is the best possible defense.

So, for this Fraud Prevention Month, my ask to you is simple: talk to the people you care about and help them avoid becoming one of our statistics. Learn more about the ways that Canadians are victimized and lose money to these scams and talk about them with your family and friends. Even if you think they’re not vulnerable – especially if you think they’re not vulnerable.

Peter Moorhouse is president and CEO of the Better Business Bureau serving the Atlantic Provinces in Halifax.

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