|At a kickoff of Fraud Prevention Month, Friday, Lethbridge regional police Sgt. Christy Woods displays card-reading machines that had been "skimmed" to steal financial information. The last local case of card-skimming happened three years ago, she said, explaining bigger cities are typically bigger targets for these types of fraudsters. Herald photo by Katie May|
Fraud happens more often in Lethbridge than some of its embarrassed victims would like to admit to city police - particularly "romance scams" that prey on lonely souls.
As the Lethbridge regional police service kicks off its Fraud Prevention Month this March, investigators warn of rampant online dating dupes that are spreading across the country.
"We've seen an influx of reports of online dating or the romance scam and, of course, the more famous Notre Dame quarterback (Manti Te'o) was even a victim of the online dating scam," said Sgt. Christy Woods, head of the economic crimes unit.
"We've seen every age from probably 16 to 90 be a victim of this," she added. "Anybody is very vulnerable."
Locally, police are being notified of potential online dating scams from people who haven't fallen victim, "and a few people that have that are too embarrassed to complain," Woods said.
To avoid emotionally and financially investing in a fake online relationship, she advises online daters to meet in person and to be wary if their new online love interest asks for money.
The municipal police force's five-member economic crimes unit, which deals with all types of fraud, faces challenges in investigating online fraud, which often crosses jurisdictional boundaries.
"Fraud nowadays, with the Internet, is multi-jurisdictional across different countries, so we're quite used to dealing with international types of scams," Woods said. "If you always follow the money you can usually find people, however, if it's with a country that doesn't have co-operating law enforcement agencies, then we're kind of at a standstill."
That's why police are focusing on prevention.
The police service is planning community awareness events throughout March that are focused on preventing online dating scams, counterfeit cards and skimming schemes, identity theft and investment fraud.
With several cases of investment fraud and alleged Ponzi schemes reported in Lethbridge in recent years, including charges against two local men announced Thursday by the Alberta Securities Commission, Woods said it's important to keep spreading the message that "if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is."
People should take their time and do a lot of research before making any investments, especially ones that promise a high return - even if they're suggested by a relative or a friend, Woods warned.
Fraudsters often gain the trust of one victim and then rely on that person to hook other investors through word of mouth, she said.
"Unfortunately, it's kind of like the romance scam - sometimes people are embarrassed to come forward and say that they've invested in these types of things and a lot of times there's a lot of money lost and they don't want to tell their spouses or friends or family and have that public embarrassment," she said. "So unfortunately we don't get as many complaints and oftentimes these people are still on the side of the fraudsters - supporting them and defending them - because they truly believe they're going to get their money someday. So they're often difficult cases to prosecute."
To ward off identity theft and compromised credit and debit cards, police recommend shredding documents and changing personal identification numbers often.
The police service is offering to shred personal documents - including CDs and computer hard drives -during a free session in the AMA parking lot at 120 Scenic Drive South from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on March 23. Participants are asked to bring a non-perishable food item to donate.