It was a promising investment opportunity pitched by a friend, promised in a social media advertisement or proposed by a stranger on a dating app, but it turned into a nightmare for many Canadians.
Joel from Calgary sent $16,000 to what he thought was a brokerage company based in England. Valerie from Scarborough invested $9,000 on the recommendation of a new love interest. Christopher from Stratford spent $10,000 on an investment that later he would say was “too good to be true.” Aleah from Woodbridge borrowed $75,000 from her mother’s line of credit and gave it to someone who said he would teach her how to trade a new, exciting type of currency.
These people, who posted about their experiences using only their first names on GoFundMe, the crowdfunding website, are among thousands, possibly tens of thousands, of Canadians who fell for the latest, most prevalent investment fraud scheme: crypto scams.
Their stories share a similar line. The lure of massive investment gains prompted them to entrust thousands of dollars to fraudsters who disappeared with their money, leaving them despondent, indebted and broke.
“I am in total shock and extremely angry at myself for being so naive and trusting,” wrote Valerie, the Scarborough woman who lost money to a fraudster she met on a dating app. “All because of me always seeing the good in people.”
The crypto ecosystem is ripe with dangerous investments. Cryptocurrencies are digital assets whose values fluctuate. Pump-and-dump schemes, in which influencers promote new digital currencies and make off with profits, leaving their investors with a worthless asset, are common.
But perhaps more common are schemes where Canadians are duped into spending their money on what they think is a lucrative cryptocurrency, an investment in bitcoin or ethereum, that, in reality, doesn’t exist at all.
Investment scams are old. Before crypto, most involved stocks: a call from a broker who promised high returns and disappeared when the victim tried to withdraw their money. Today, as investors looking for quick gains turn to crypto, fraudsters have too.
“With the pandemic, a lot of people tried to look for other ways of making money and when the crypto world basically exploded in 2020, crypto fraud skyrocketed too,” said Sorin Mihailovici, editor-in-chief of Scam-Detector.com. “This is the No. 1 type of fraud in the world.”
Mihailovici, who runs Scam-Detector out of Edmonton, initially intended for the site to be the “Wikipedia of scams,” where users could flag suspicious behaviour to one another. Now, however, he offers tools that determine whether a website is trustworthy and likely a front for scammers.
He sees first hand the number of scammers competing to draw victims’ attention, estimating the crypto fraud business is now worth billions.
The scams, which first began appearing in 2015, became more common as cryptocurrencies entered the mainstream, according to the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre (CAFC).
This is the No. 1 type of fraud in the world
Sorin Mihailovici, editor-in-chief, Scam-Detector.com
While the CAFC doesn’t keep exact statistics for the amount of crypto fraud it sees, the centre notes that most of the $164 million Canadians lost to investment fraud in 2021 was due to crypto scams.
“Crypto scams are massive,” said Jeff Horncastle, acting client and communications outreach officer at the CAFC. ”It is very easy unfortunately to fall into one of the traps just due to the low amount of information that people generally have on cryptocurrency.”
Horncastle said networks of organized criminals lurk behind these frauds and they can vary in complexity.
One popular iteration is the romance scam, also known as a “pig butchering scam,” where fraudsters take to online dating sites to lure potential victims, gaining their trust through weeks of conversation and eventually convincing them to put their money in a fake investment scheme.
It’s a pattern that’s repeated in other versions of the scheme. Each time, the lure of crypto investment gains is promised from a source that attempts to win the victim’s trust.
Sometimes, that’s through a website designed to look like a legitimate trading platform. Horncastle said many of the top search engine results for cryptocurrency investments are actually scam platforms. Other times, fraudsters use compromised social media accounts to impersonate a victim’s friend or relative and urge them to invest in crypto, as always promising massive returns.
The problem, in addition to the lure of fast cash, said Mihailovici, is the novelty of it all. Social media is filled with crypto hype accounts: self-proclaimed investment gurus who flaunt their own wealth in Lamborghinis and designer clothes and tout crypto as a surefire path to riches.
“It’s such a new industry, the problem is the scammers take advantage of that because nobody is an expert,” said Mihailovici “If somebody tells you they are an expert in crypto, that’s not possible really… They take advantage of the novelty of the niche.”
Canadian police have issued warnings about the rising number of crypto-related scams. Ontario Provincial Police said in 2021 they were seeing a “steady increase in reports of scams related to investing in cryptocurrency.” The RCMP last March asked Canadians to “do their research” before investing in crypto.
But arrests are rare. Fraudsters can operate overseas, conceal their identities and the cryptocurrency itself is transferred without a middleman. There are no banks or wire transfers necessary.
“It’s so hard to catch the scammers,” said Mihailovici. “The actual authorities, the police, cannot even trace all the fraud.”
Horncastle said victims should report the fraud to their local police and to the CAFC. But otherwise, victims find themselves with few recourse options and little chance of getting their money back.
An entirely separate web of fraudsters lies in wait for those who have already fallen for the scam. Known as recovery scammers, they promise that for a fee they can get your lost funds back.
But, they are promising the impossible, according to Mihailovici. For now, the scammers can operate with ostensible impunity.
“There is no recovery company that can say 100 per cent not only that they are able to recover but to find the scammers too,” he said, “and it’s going to be this way for a while.”
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