A recent spate of "spoofed" telephone scams has caught some Winnipeggers off guard, but city police say there are ways to avoid falling victim to those and other schemes.
Some in the city have reported getting phone calls, from what appeared to be a local phone number, telling them they had won trips through Shoppers Drug Mart.
Shoppers Drug Mart has posted a notice on its website, warning customers that the calls are a phone scam.
Winnipeg police and the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre say scammers are using programs to make calls look as though they come from local numbers, in a technique known as "spoofing."
"You don't want people to trace your phone number if you're a bad guy, so you want the computer system to think you're calling from another number," Sgt. Kenneth Molloy, who heads up the Winnipeg Police Service's commercial crimes unit, told CBC News on Monday.
"As well, for bad guys, if you're calling for your victims from what looks like a local phone number — so in Winnipeg, a 204 area code — it provides some legitimacy to the scam that you're peddling."
Molloy said he has not seen a spike in the number of spoofing calls in the city lately, but he added that people should generally be very careful when they get a phone call involving money and personal information.
He said Winnipeg police do field an average of one call a day from people who have fallen victim to one of two common scams:
1. The overpayment scam
The overpayment scam targets people who have posted items for sale on classifieds websites like Kijiji.
"A buyer contacts you, wants to purchase the item, and when they send the payment it's sent by cheque and the cheque is for more than the agreed amount," Molloy explained.
"When the buyer, the alleged buyer, realizes what's happened, they contact the seller and say, 'Wire me back the difference' or they might say, 'Keep a little bit of money for yourself for the inconvenience and wire me back the difference.'
"What happens, though, is that cheque that the seller here in Winnipeg has received will eventually be returned as a forgery, and they're on the hook for any money that they've wired away," he added.
Molloy warned that the alleged scammers are using improved technology, producing cheques that look legitimate but are actually fakes.
"It's only after [the cheques] make their way to the actual issuing institution that they're finally detected as forgeries and returned," he said.
"That period of time, then, takes some time. And by that point, typically, the person here locally has wired the money away."
2. The 'mystery shopper' scam
"The mystery shopper scam is where on paper, you've been hired to do customer satisfaction surveys. You're hired and sent out to do a list of chores, be it check the bathrooms at a large corporation [or] to go and buy items," Molloy said.
"Inevitably what happens, though, is that the person here in Winnipeg is supplied with a cheque that they're told to cash and then wire the money back to somebody…. They're told that they're doing this as a customer satisfaction survey to see how the wire company is doing their job."
Molloy said getting the cheques, which typically come from a third party, should offer a clue that this company is not legitimate.
"Why would a third party be sending you this cheque to go cash?" he said.
Five ways to protect yourself
In both the overpayment and the mystery shopper scams, victims can stand to lose hundreds or even thousands of dollars, said Molloy.
So what can people do to protect themselves? Molloy has the following tips:
1. Don't feel pressured
Molloy said Winnipeggers should be wary of those who send cheques, whether it's for something they want to buy or a mystery shopper job, and ask them to wire back part or all of the amount.
"Don't be pressured into wiring the money, because as soon as you wire that money it's gone. wires are like cash," he said.
"Offer to return the cheque to the individual. Make some inquiries about the cheque with a legitimate source to see if it's valid. chances are that it's not, and simply cut off communication with the person."
2. Avoid overpayment schemes
Winnipeggers selling goods online should be wary of buyers who offer to pay much more than the advertised price.
"When you're selling something on the internet, and a person sends you money to pay for the shipping, and the shipping is more than the dollar value of the item, that should be a clue.
"If you're selling your couch on Kijiji for $350, and some individual is willing to pay $1,000 to have it shipped to them, and they want to send you the money which you in turn give to the shipper, that's a clue that something's wrong."
3. Beware 'mystery shopper' schemes
Molloy said people should ask themselves some questions if they're offered a job through a "mystery shopper" company.
"Does this make sense? How did I get a job without being interviewed? How did I get a job to do customer satisfaction surveys if I've never been trained? And why am I receiving a cheque from a third party to go cash?" he said.
"These are things that people should look at and say this job isn't legit."
4. Contact the wire company
Those who believe they have fallen victim to the overpayment or mystery shopper scam, and wired money away, should contact the wire company immediately, Molloy said.
"Sometimes the wire company, if the money hasn't been picked up, the sender can collect it [and] get it returned to them," he said.
"It's rare but it does happen. So as soon as you know, you got to cut off that money."
5. Hang up
"Don't be pressured into buying anything over the phone, make sure you know who you're dealing with, and don't be afraid to hang up," Molloy said.
"People generally are very polite. They need to know there's nothing wrong with hanging up the phone if you don't like the way the conversation is going with that person."