Jordan: So I saw my family over the long weekend. And when I say saw, that’s all I mean, I hooked a bunch of us up to a teleconference for a little Easter celebration. So yeah, I saw them and I guess I heard them too. And that’s it.
Claire: Well, that sounds nice. I saw a lot of that over the weekend. I’ve been doing Zoom calls with my family about once a week. It was my dad’s birthday recently, and they put the laptop at the dinner table so that I could see them all. And it was kind of like I was there.
Jordan: See, kind of. Kind of is good, but this is what we’re supposed to call physical distancing. Not social distancing, because I guess the point is by video chatting with my family, I am maintaining social connections.
Claire: Yeah, I mean, you’re still being social. You’re just not there physically.
Jordan: Okay. Well, here’s my mini rant about that. It is social distancing. It is literally socializing at a distance. And it does feel distant. And I’m bringing this up because there is, I guess a bit of a debate around which term is proper. And I wanted to quickly use this time to say, before we get into the nasty scams and frauds that are going around now, that it doesn’t matter what term you use here. They mean the same thing and either way it sucks. So pick your favourite.
Claire: Yeah, definitely. You’re right about that. I mean, we’re so fortunate to have this kind of technology right now, but it’s not the same thing as seeing people in real life. I mean, it doesn’t matter how many Zoom calls you do, you can still feel lonely as soon as you log off.
Jordan: And this is where we get into today’s topic. Because guess what? It’s precisely when we’re feeling those things, when we’re scared or we’re lonely or missing family or even just looking for help and information, it’s that time that we’re most vulnerable to frauds and scam artists who are right now looking to profit off of people’s misery and fear. Here in Ontario, this is just one example, but this weekend, Premier Doug Ford vowed to deal with these people as harshly as possible.
News Clip: There’s always going to be very, very few bad apples, disgusting people that want to make a profit off the backs of people that are dying. If we ever catch them here in Ontario, I’ll tell ya, we’ll come down on them like they’ve never seen before and to the full extent of the law.
Jordan: But here’s the problem with that. It’s almost impossible to catch them. And once they’ve got your money or your information, it’s almost impossible to get it back. What you can do, though, is protect yourself. You can know the details of the scams going around. You can know the signs of a fake and you can know how these people will pitch themselves to you. And all of that will help. So today to kick off week five of self isolation, right after the news, we will give you an extensive guide to keeping yourself and your information safe during all of this. But first, Claire as another week begins, how’s Canada doing?
Claire: Yeah, well, I’m going to start in Quebec today, where we know the Coronavirus has hit hard. Police are investigating a longterm care home in the Montreal area. That’s where 31 people have died since mid-March, and nurses have now been speaking up describing unsanitary conditions. They say some residents were completely neglected for over 24 hours because workers just couldn’t handle the conditions and were walking off the job. Quebec’s premier is promising a thorough public investigation. Well, the province of Manitoba has put out a call to local businesses to make medical masks, and this comes after a medical team in Winnipeg came up with a design for a mask that would be just as effective as the N95 so they’re hoping to find local manufacturers to get on this as soon as possible, because the province says it’s about a week or two away from running out of masks and other personal protective equipment. Well, there was a video making the rounds last week showing a man in an elevator in British Columbia, spitting on the buttons. Now that man is now apologizing for what he did. He says it was the result of a momentary fit of anger from an ongoing dispute between him and the strata council in the building that he lives in. He also says he has no health issues, no COVID-19 symptoms, and Vancouver police say they are not investigating this. And lastly, Justin Trudeau is one of many leaders across the country back at work today, after taking a rare day off for Easter Sunday. He did send out a written message, though, thanking Canadians for staying home, especially during the long weekend. He said, by doing this, Canadians are showing the true meaning of loving our neighbours as ourselves. As of Sunday evening, over 24,000 cases of COVID-19 in Canada with 764 deaths.
Jordan: I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings. This is The Big Story. Sam Cooper is a national investigative journalist with Global News who has looked into just about all of the scams going around. Hello, Sam.
Sam: Hi. How are you doing?
Jordan: I’m doing all right. Where are you right now? You’re in a basement, an apartment somewhere?
Sam: No, I’m located in Ottawa. Usually we’d be in our Global News studio with a view of Parliament Hill. I’m a little bit further away. I’m at home, in my home studio today as, as we, I think most of us are at this point.
Jordan: Yes. Well, we’re all just trying to record from wherever we can. But we’re going to talk about scams today.
Jordan: So how quickly did we start seeing COVID-19 scams from, you know, the day Canada first had a case?
Sam: Well, I would track it back even further in my research. I think potentially the original scam, as it were, was started by China’s government, unfortunately, when this virus started to roll through Wuhan, China, in a November and December. There were some doctors that were trying to warn people and they got visits from a police in China and said retract your statements or else you’ll be in trouble. Chinese state media said any rumourmongers talking about as SARS-like virus will face penalties. And that really created the conditions for a once in a lifetime health crisis to roll out, and we started to see more traditional corporate scams appearing worldwide, I would say late January and in February.
Jordan: What did those first ones look like?
Sam: Well, they were very sophisticated and they played on the need, the crucial need for information, and also some sort of fear. And I think one of the very first engineered widespread scans we saw was sites that mimicked universities like Johns Hopkins were putting out data boards where all new Coronavirus cases were appearing. Everyone was hungry for that data, understandably. For these spoofed sites, when you clicked on them, it was actually a scheme where the criminals on the other side were fishing for your personal information through your computer. And that really sets the table for a whole world of scams, because once criminals have your information. Any number of bad things can happen from there, and it can lead to further scams. They’re just building up their databases on how to social engineer, as it’s called, scams that work off, you know, a good knowledge of who the targets are.
Jordan: So give me an example then, if you can, of what they would do once somebody had clicked on one of those sites and they’d mined some of their data.
Sam: Once the criminals have your data, it can go into what’s called dark pools where that data is sold to other criminals or, if you’re a ready target right away, you may receive something like a text message that would say either a warning or an offer of sorts. We have some emergency assistance for you. We’re a government agency such as, let’s say, Finance Canada in our country or the CRA, the IRS in the United States, and you just need to advance us as small a processing fee so that you can obtain your much needed assistance. That’s what’s called an advanced fee scam. You know, you can understand how it’d be very effective when you have what looks like an official message from your government. You may have just lost your job and you’re anxious, you’re desperate. You may even have a little inkling that this is too good to be true at this point, but you’re in a condition, the experts tell us, where it’s quite easy to be fooled and tricked into clicking on that link and even sending a bit of money.
Jordan: So this whole thing starts with misinformation, and that produces the desperation for real information. And then as COVID-19 comes to dominate the headlines and becomes the only story, you know, around late February, early March, how do these scams evolve?
Sam: It started with information from our own government, the communication security establishment, put out alerts saying that Canadian government websites have been spoofed. That would include the Canada Border Agency, Finance Canada, various tax authorities. And these were very sophisticated web-generated images, that look very much like a Canadian government website. And they may be offering information on COVID-19, or they may be offering assistance of some kind. And so people who are desperate for information sitting at home wondering, is this something that I should look into? They can quite easily be fooled, we’re told.
Jordan: You’ve mentioned it a couple of times, and for people who might not be familiar with it, or are learning about this, can you explain to me what a spoofed website is and how people can tell the difference between one of them and an official government site?
Sam: Well, when we’re surfing the web, we’re at home, we’re isolated, we’re looking for information, a spoofed website would, would simply be, you may be Googling for information, a link may be sent to you, and when you click on it, this could appear to be pretty much like the real thing. It would look like a Canadian government website. It probably would not have the detail. It certainly doesn’t have the detail and the structure of a real website, but once you’ve clicked on it, it may be the case that some malware is released into your own computer or your personal information might be captured. How can you tell the difference? The authorities tell us you should do something called triangulating your information. You should, before you click on that website, if you have any indication that this could be false, even if you don’t, you should do your own Google search, make sure you’re going to the real version of a Canadian government website. And within that domain, you can start to ask some questions, type in some queries into the information boxes, and you’ll, I think most people will quickly be able to discover that, you know, there’s enough information, enough current information, and solid information, that this looks like a real government website. If they went back to the spoofed website, they’d see that the image or the veneer looks very convincing, but there’s not much going on under the hood.
Jordan: When you talk about spoofed websites and phishing scams, all of that stuff is familiar to me, from episodes we’ve done on scams in the past, or just general campaigns against online phishing. What I’m wondering is, are any of these approaches unique to COVID-19, or are they kind of the usual scams with the veneer of a pandemic?
Sam: I think the experts I talked to said it’s very much, at the basic level, all scams are very similar. It’s sort of an offer, a carrot is put out there. You have a need. You may have a curiosity and in certain circumstances, your need, even your fear, or even greed may become higher. And so, I think in these cases, the scams are very well known. They’re also very well organized. We can’t forget that often it’s organized crime rings that are behind these scams. And so what they’ve done, evidently, is they’ve tailored them specifically to the COVID-19 crisis. And so what the experts told us is this is a sort of a perfect storm, if you can follow this line of thinking, we’re all in a psychological, really a mental space that we have never been before. No one has lived through this kind of fear and uncertainty on a health and safety worldwide threat. So, psychologists have told me that it’s very possible that you’re generally critical thinking capacity is going down. You’re worried so much about your safety that, you’re not decision-making as you would. Your ability to discern truth and falsehoods could be going down. To boil it down, your bandwidth is being taken up by worrying for your own safety and trying to figure out what the heck is going on in the world. And so those are the conditions where you’re looking for answers. Someone appears to be providing you an answer, even offering assistance. You might even know about phishing and the advanced fee frauds, but the experts tell us that these types of conditions, people are much more vulnerable to scams. On top of that, there’s the self isolation that’s going on. We’re cut off from our usual social and support networks often, and beyond that, everyone’s on the web. And guess what? The criminals and the organized crime fraudsters are on the web too. That’s where they do almost, you know, a high degree of their scams these days. So in some ways they have a very captive and a target rich audience.
Jordan: How do these scammers operate and how much do they work together? Cause the picture I have in my head is, you know, hackers working in their basement to make themselves rich, not an organized group of people.
Sam: No, and that would be easy to think. But what we’re told from, for example, very experienced RCMP anti-fraud experts that have moved on and are doing their own consulting work, now tell me that fraud is almost always organized. That doesn’t mean that it’s always the type of gangster that you would see importing drugs into a country that’s involved. But very often it’s an organization linked to those extremely dangerous gangsters that has employed hackers sitting in basements and engineering these types of scams. Because organized fraud is a way to launder money from organized crime, more traditional means of earning income, through drug trafficking, weapons trafficking. So we’re told that absolutely, the fraudsters are in contact through encrypted communications. They’re talking about what scams are working day to day. They’re talking about how the authorities may be on to something. They’re sharing targets. They’re sharing data on dark pools about this information that’s been phished, as we already talked about. It’s extremely organized and targeted, and the experts say we probably were in an unprecedent time for scams. A lot of it is very transnational as well.
Jordan: How well are we doing at combating it, either through the authorities or through messaging from the government and other places?
Sam: It’s difficult to say at this point how many people are being victimized. What we do know is that, for example, Canada’s cyber intelligence agency has said as of the last two weeks, they’ve taken out down well over 100 spoofed sites made to look like official Canadian government websites. They have included links on the CSE website on how to recognize scams. This is going on around the world, every day for people monitoring social media, if you follow the RCMP, the FBI, if you follow, for example, Finance Minister Bill Morneau, very recently sent out a tweet with an exclamation mark saying, don’t get taken by this scam of someone offering you an emergency benefit from Finance Canada. This wasn’t from us. That was followed up by officials from Finance Canada. So we know the hooks are out there. They’re being set. At this point. We don’t have the data on how many people are being victimized. But we can also see that governments around the world, especially Canada, the United States, are being extremely diligent in warning people to not get tricked and to do their own research.
Jordan: What’s the most effective next step if you suspect you found a spoofed website or a phishing email? Is this an RCMP thing? Go to your local police department? Is there a Canada wide place that you can forward this?
Sam: Well, the experts say the very first course of action would be, when you’re encountering a link, why don’t you just step back for a minute? There’s a level of anxiety and desperation in people where you’re just, it’s almost like a magnet. You’re going to want to click on that because you want help, you want a reward. The experts are saying, Hey, step back. Maybe take a screen picture of it. If you’re not with a family member, you can trust, maybe you send that. Don’t send the link online. Send a picture that you’ve taken of it, and and ask, what is this? Have you seen this? Could there be– do you think this is true? That is just a very important step to pause, think twice, look for some advice at home, and often people will be able to determine that this isn’t a good idea. Again, go do your translation online, a little bit of research and often people can save themselves and find out that I’m not going to get taken. If it’s a little bit more serious, if you’ve already gone down the line and clicked on something and you believe you’re being scammed, at that point, I believe the experts would say, you should contact your local police department.
Jordan: So I understand all of the work being done on prevention and caution, but once somebody has lost data or lost money to these scams, you know, I understand the procedure for reporting a regular theft, and perhaps getting your property back. But I am assuming for this kind of thing, because it’s all so opaque, that once it’s gone, it’s pretty much gone?
Sam: And I think you’d be right on that. You know, of course, if you believe you’ve been scammed, you should report it to police. I would think that at this point, governments around the world are really focused on one response, and that is trying to save lives due to the COVID-19 crisis. I just have to believe that they don’t have the resources that they usually would have to combat things like scams and financial crimes. What the experts have said. Is the best course of advice is do everything to educate yourself, your family members. Let’s say that you have an elderly relative that could be open or vulnerable to this type of scam. You should contact them and try to educate them, educate yourself, protect yourself. That will be the best way to make sure that you don’t lose your vital information or money.
Jordan: Thank you for helping us with this today, Sam.
Sam: Thanks very much.
Jordan: Sam Cooper is a National Investigative Journalist with Global News. That was The Big Story. If you would like more, we do this every weekday. You can find us at thebigstorypodcast.ca. You can always find us on Twitter at @thebigstoryFPN. If you’d like to share with us what you’ve been doing, how you’re getting by, any new habits you’ve developed, new skills, or even just a good TV show to watch, you can send us an audio clip made with the voice memo on your phone or a video clip just made with your phone’s camera. We will only use the audio. And you can email it to firstname.lastname@example.org. Every once in awhile we like to play an update from one of our listeners and we’ll do that right now from somebody who is out, sort of out, enjoying the weather. Thanks for listening. I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings. We’ll talk tomorrow.
Erin: Hi there. This is Erin from Kenora, Ontario. It’s up in the Northwestern part of the province, right up by the Manitoba border. And we do live in a lovely part of the province. So, while I admittedly have not been outside as much as I probably should be during this time, I’ve been a little busy trying to figure out how to transition my dance studio to all online classes and continue to pay the bills and all of that stress and anxiety that I know many other people are feeling as well. It is nice, even though we’ve just had a fresh snowfall, to know that I can step outside and enjoy a little bit of fresh air, listen to the birds chirping and just take a few nice deep breaths.
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