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Scammers preying on pandemic infection fears of Canadians

Fraud expert warns of vaccine scams proliferating amid country-wide vaccination rollout
The Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre has issued a warning over the proliferation of scams targeting people’s anxieties over COVID-19 | Vancouver Coastal Health

It was a fleeting moment of excitement for a friend’s 65-year-old mother when she received a phone call letting her know it was her turn to book a COVID-19 vaccine appointment, recalls Ilia Lvovski.

The timing of the call made sense – the mother was eligible – and the conversation soon turned to the spike in cases across Canada. The caller made mention of the possibility she would have to stand in line at a vaccine clinic where others may have been exposed to the coronavirus.

But for a $50 fee, a licensed nurse would visit her home to administer the dose. The friend’s mother would just need to provide her credit card number.

“She became suspicious. So she hung up, and he didn’t call back again. But it just shows that these cases are all around us and we have to got to be very vigilant,” said Lvovski, the founder of TeraDrive Inc. (TerraDrive Data Recovery) and a member of the British Columbia Institute of Technology’s digital forensics faculty.

The fraud expert said annual flu seasons of years past did not result in these types of scams targeting people’s anxieties over vaccinations.

But Canada’s slow vaccine rollout and the sometimes confusing messaging from the province about registrations versus bookings for vaccine appointments has left room for scammers to seize on the situation.

The Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre (CAFC) went as far as to issue a warning over the proliferation of scams related to COVID-19 vaccine procurement.

“Do not buy COVID-19 vaccines online or from unauthorized sources,” the federal agency warned on March 31.

“The only way to access safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines is through clinics organized or endorsed by your local public health authority in collaboration with Canada’s federal, provincial and territorial governments.”

In addition to offers of counterfeit vaccines, the CAFC also cautioned of new scams such as “coronavirus-themed emails or text messages” attempting to trick people into downloading malicious apps, as well as unsolicited calls from people claiming to represent clinics or private companies that can provide vaccination kits for an upfront fee.

Lvovski said fraudsters have also been posing as representatives from businesses like FortisBC Inc. or government officials demanding CERB repayments.

In all of the cases, the scams have centred on tapping into anxieties brought on by the pandemic to pry financial information from people.

“All they do is look for ways to manipulate our fears and get into our minds,” Lvovski said.

He said older Canadians have been prime targets because they are usually less technological savvy than younger generations.

Lvovski visited a number of retirement homes in the Lower Mainland a few years ago to teach residents about the types of financial scams targeting that generation.

“And the reactions that I would get each time is, ‘Wow, I mean, that would definitely work on me,’” he said.

Amid the uncertainty brought on by B.C.’s vaccine rollout, Lvovski said people should not be afraid to hang up and check a number online if they’re suspicious about the caller. If they’ve already handed over financial information or a social insurance number, they should contact their credit card company or Service Canada.

But Lvovski said these scams are becoming even tougher to fight with the rise of cryptocurrencies that can’t be traced back or recovered.

“Obviously we live in a unique time, the pandemic time, and that fear that we all carry with us now is a huge one. It’s a sort of viable field.

“It’s not something that you would compare to from about two or three years ago when people would be looking for different scams. This one is a survival fear.” •