Nova Scotia

Halifax retiree conned out of $12K after scammers threaten her with arrest

Gay Durnford was coerced by scammers to drain her bank accounts and deposit the cash into a digital currency terminal. Her daughter helped her recover half of what was lost.

Daughter helped Gay Durnford recover half of what she lost after depositing cash into bitcoin machine

Gay Durnford stands in front of a rhododendron bush planted beside her father's grave in Halifax in 2018. Durnford recently lost more than $12K to phone scammers who pretended to be calling from the Canada Revenue Agency and the RCMP. (Submitted by Lisa Pottie)

Gay Durnford was about to make breakfast at her home in Halifax last Wednesday when she heard her phone ring.

The woman on the other end, who claimed to work for the Canada Revenue Agency, told Durnford that her social insurance number had been used in multiple scams. She said the RCMP had issued a warrant for Durnford's arrest.

The woman told Durnford, a 73-year-old retiree, that the RCMP would be in touch to confirm her identity, and hung up. 

For several hours, multiple scammers intimidated Durnford over the phone and repeatedly threatened her with arrest, eventually coercing her into turning over $12,000.

'I started to shake'

When the next call came, the man on the phone said he was with the RCMP. He told Durnford to go to her bank and take out all of her money — the RCMP would keep it safe until her name was cleared and deliver it to her door afterward. Durnford was still in shock from the first call.

"I started to shake," Durnford said. "He said, 'You know, it's your choice. You don't have to do this. But the arrest warrant will be sent.'" 

Feeling she had no choice, Durnford drove to her two banks and drained her accounts, save for a few hundred dollars. 

The man told Durnford she had to deposit the money into a "safe wallet," which could be accessed via a yellow machine resembling an ATM at a convenience store on Brunswick Street.

The cryptocurrency machine Durnford used was operated by Localcoin. The Toronto-based company says it operates the largest network of bitcoin ATMs in Canada. (Simon Smith/CBC)

"[It] turned out to be a bitcoin thing, which I had never, ever touched or gone near," said Durnford.

The man gave Durnford multiple phone numbers and passwords, which she used to deposit over $12,000 over several transactions into the Localcoin machine — one of the company's 500 cryptocurrency terminals across Canada.

"I was feeling right out of it, to put it mildly," Durnford said.

Never thought this would happen

Durnford's daughter, Lisa Pottie, said she was heartbroken when her mother told her what had happened.

"It's taken a toll on her mental health and her mental well-being," Pottie said. "It's life-changing for her."

Pottie said she's talked to her mother about these kinds of scams before and she didn't think this would ever happen.

"She got rid of her landline for this very reason," Pottie said. "I think in her mind, she knew that something didn't feel right, but they never let her off the phone, so she never got a chance to ask anybody."

Eventually, Pottie's anger and frustration gave way to determination. She started doing research on phone scams and contacting the banks and the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre. She wanted to find out how her mother was allowed to withdraw all of her money so easily.

On Tuesday, Pottie's efforts paid off. One bank informed her mother they would be crediting $6,000, the amount she withdrew, to her account.

Cryptocurrency adds 'layer of complexity'

Once money is deposited into a digital currency wallet, the transaction is unlikely to be reversed, according to the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre 

The technology also "adds a layer of complexity" for police investigating these scams, an RCMP spokesperson said.

Durnford said the Toronto-based company that operates the machine blocked the phone numbers associated with her transactions as a security measure after identifying the deposits as fraudulent. Localcoin would not disclose how it determined the transactions were fraudulent.

Charlene Cieslik, the chief compliance officer for Localcoin, said while the company's machines are equipped with warnings and other security measures, she recognizes fraudsters are still able to persuade their victims to use them.

The machine Durnford used is equipped with multiple warnings to prevent users from falling victim to fraud. (Simon Smith/CBC)

"The scams haven't changed," said Cieslik, who has worked in compliance for financial institutions for 20 years. "It's just a new way to do it."

She said if someone is unfamiliar with cryptocurrency, they shouldn't approach one of these machines under someone else's direction.

What to do if you're targeted

The RCMP advises anyone who thinks they're being targeted by a fraudster over the phone to report it to their local police department.

"The police will never contact you directly to obtain or ask for money from you," the RCMP spokesperson said.

CRA said if you're not sure the person you're talking to is actually from the agency:

  • Tell the caller you want to verify their identity. A CRA employee will not be resistant to this.

  • Request and make note of their name, office location, a direct phone number if they have one, and the purpose for their call.

  • Hang up the phone and call the CRA directly at 1-800-959-8281.

The Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre also has a guide on its website explaining how to protect yourself from scams and fraud.

Durnford said she's going to be much more careful now, and she's thankful for her children who supported her and helped her recover half the money she lost.

Now, she said she wants her story to be a cautionary tale for others.

"If I can get this out there, it might help at least one person," Durnford said. "And that would be worth doing it."