Alberta Securities Commission orchestrates 'perfect scam' to raise fraud prevention awareness
'We wanted to show people how easy it is to appear legitimate'
Sharply dressed in a designer suit, "mastermind" financier Jonathan Fisher promises a packed room of would-be investors a fortune.
The seminar, complete with a complimentary buffet and crisp white tablecloths, is packed with people keen to cash in on "guaranteed, low-risk, high-yield securities."
If it sounds too good to be true, that's because it is.
The seminar is a charade. The financier is a paid actor and there are no fast fortunes to be made here.
'Rife with the red flags of fraud'
The Alberta Securities Commission carefully orchestrated the fake seminar as a way to show Albertans how easy it is to fall prey to illicit investment scams.
"We created what we called the perfect scam," said Alison Trollope, director of communications and investor education with the Alberta Securities Commission.
The Feb. 22 event in Calgary was billed as a real estate investment seminar put on by "Maplestock Investments" — in reality a fake company dreamed up by the ASC.
"We created a fake investment company, we created a persona which was Jonathan Fisher, a British born financier who spends time on his yacht in his spare time, and invited people to learn about an investment opportunity," Trollope said.
The regulatory agency attracted dozens of unsuspecting people to the Carriage House Inn in Calgary with fake investment profiles and advertisements on Facebook, Kijiji and Craigslist. They created a professional-looking website and delivered flyers to homes around the city.
Attendees were promised a free lunch, insider investment tips and an introduction to a "robust portfolio of distressed condos." The event page was accessed more than 8,500 times. Nearly 50 people registered for the seminar; 22 showed up.
"Everything about the fake investment opportunity — from the company's name and logo to Jonathan Fisher's bio and the colour of his tie — was extensively researched and specifically designed to be trustworthy," said Trollope.
"Real-life scam artists go to these extreme lengths all the time to convince people to hand over their hard-earned money. We wanted to show people how easy it is to appear legitimate."
Halfway through the seminar, the crowd was told it was all a set-up and were given a short presentation on the importance of protecting their hard-earned money. The entire event was filmed and was turned into an educational video to mark Fraud Prevention Month.
"We were flabbergasted with the response," said Trollope, who had been concerned that the room would erupt with anger.
"We were concerned that people would feel tricked, but people were very appreciative of coming to the realization of how simple it can be for anybody to get caught up in an investment scam.
"They seemed very grateful that they had been warned."
Trollope is urging investors to be wary of unregistered salespeople, the promise of guaranteed returns and high-pressure sales tactics.
"That is precisely why we took such drastic measures with this campaign," she said. "We want to drill home the message that the best way people can protect themselves is to do their homework before making any investment decision."