Edmonton·GO PUBLIC

Utility scam crosses into Canada, catches Edmonton senior

A scam that possibly caught thousands of Americans two years ago has crossed into Canada, snaring an Edmonton senior and longtime community volunteer as one of its victims.

Scammers offer discounts, steal personal information

Moe Ghani thought the polite, Urdu-speaking young man who called was offering a legitimate discount on his bills. (CBC)

A scam that possibly caught thousands of Americans two years ago has crossed into Canada, snaring an Edmonton senior and longtime community volunteer as one of its victims.

The Council of Better Business Bureaus in Arlington, VA, reported in 2012 that the so-called “utility scam” involved people across the US being told they were eligible to have payments applied to their utility bills.

The US scam masqueraded as a government program. The Canadian version claims to be a company offering discount coupons valid for payment of utility bills. It has turned up in Mississauga, Ont. and in Edmonton.

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Moe Ghani, who was active for decades in the city’s Pakistani-Canadian community, lost $2,128 to a scammer who promised him a steep discount on his utility bills.

“I feel really bad,” he said.

“We can’t afford to lose this much, especially when we are living on our pensions.”

For 20 years until 2013, Ghani operated Motherly, a soup-and-sandwich shop at the University of Alberta’s Hub Mall.

He said he began receiving phone calls in July from someone claiming to represent a company called Utilities Billing Discount. He thought he was doing business with a student who was working to pay for his education.

He receives lots of calls from telemarketers and generally refuses to deal with them, but this caller made a special connection. He spoke to him in Urdu, Ghani’s native language, and spoke to him deferentially.

“This is our tradition. This is our values, that’s the way we were brought up. I respect my father, my teacher, my elder brothers, my sisters.”

“He was very, very polite, very decent, respecting me as an elder, because he was a young fellow – the age of my son,” Ghani said.

Caller offers to apply payment voucher to utility bill

The caller said the company had discount vouchers with various utility companies. He said the vouchers had no cash value but could be applied for face-value against a utility account.

Utilities Billing Discount would apply the vouchers to Ghani’s utilities bills, and only after his account was paid would Ghani have to pay Utilities Billing Discount its “commission”.

Scammers use stolen credit card information to make payments to your account, then persuade you to send them money before the fraud is detected. (CBC)
“I said, 'let’s give it a try. What am I going to lose if I give him my bill and he pays my bill?,'” he said.

“I’m a senior guy. I get a few dollars here and he makes a few dollars, what’s wrong?”

Ghani gave the caller information for his two Telus accounts.

A few days later he received payment confirmations from the telecom. The scammers had prepaid his two accounts, one for $1,080 and another for $1,740.

Ghani then received an emailed “invoice” from Utilities Billing Discount, tallying up the $2,820 it had applied to Ghani’s Telus accounts. They told him they had applied a “discount” of $1,692 and instructed Ghani to deposit the balance of $1,128 in a TD Canada Trust account.

After he made the deposit, Ghani said he was offered the same deal for his credit card accounts, provided he pay a $500 deposit.

“I said, I already made (over $1,600) in my last Telus Bill, let me try,” Ghani said.

“So I gave him $500.”

He provided account information for three credit cards.

Through a series of ruses, he was persuaded to send another $500 before he concluded that something was wrong and refused to send more money.

Callers kept working on Ghani, offering to pay more of his bills as a sign of goodwill, provided he send a further $500. He refused.

Ghani said six weeks after he paid his first $500, his Telus bill arrived, showing the $1,080 and $1740 payments had been reversed.

In an email, Telus spokesman Chris Gerritsen called it “a nasty case of credit card fraud."

Gerritsen said that scammers know that many companies allow payments to be made with a credit card.

He said the overlapping billing cycles of Telus and the credit card company can create several weeks’ delay before a customer sees his bill, and that scammers exploit this timing to steal as much as they can before they’re discovered.

By the time Ghani discovered the reversal on his Telus accounts he had already sent the scammers information for seven different credit card and utility accounts.

Victim’s credit card used to lure other victims

The worst was still to come.

Ghani discovered his credit cards were being used to pay other people’s utility bills, as a way, he suspects, to lure other victims.

More than $9,000 was charged to his MasterCard to various FIDO, Rogers, Bell and other telecom and TV accounts.

PC Financial fraud investigators have taken over and Ghani said he won’t be liable for the charges on his card, but he’s still out the $2,128.

“Definitely, I felt foolish, but the mistake has been done,” he said. “There’s nothing you can do.”

Scammers use trust to break through our normal suspicions, expert says

Human beings are wired by evolution to trust others and the scammers who caught Ghani exploited his inclination to trust a respectful young man from his own culture, according to Robert Fisher, professor of marketing at the University of Alberta.

Marketing professor Robert Fisher says scammers exploit the fact humans are wired by evolution to trust others. (CBC)
Fisher said that without trust, society would be a hard and terrible place.

“From an evolutionary standpoint, we have evolved to be successful because we trust. And sometimes we get burned.”

Fisher said the scammers knew which cultural buttons to push to win Ghani’s trust.

“And when that happens, we react automatically, our defences drop, we don’t think intellectually. People stop thinking analytically,” Fisher said.

“It’s such a tragedy, because it works against the most beautiful part of human beings,” Fisher said.

“We are who we are today because we’re willing to help people, we’re wired to care.”

Go Public’s emails and phone calls to Utilities Billing Discount were never returned.

Ghani said he knows his money is lost.

His reason for Going Public, he said, is to warn others. He hopes the scammers will eventually be caught.

“This hanky-panky thing should be stopped in Canada.”

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