Ministers, MPs targeted by Facebook Messenger impersonation scam

With only a few months to go until the federal election, at least three federal cabinet ministers and multiple other members of Parliament have seen their Facebook Messenger accounts mimicked by people offering to dole out government grants.

Social Development Minister Duclos, Rural Development Minister Jordan among those targeted

Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett was one of the MPs targeted by a Facebook Messenger impersonation scam. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

With only a few months to go until the federal election, at least three federal cabinet ministers and multiple other members of Parliament have seen their Facebook Messenger accounts mimicked by people offering to dole out government grants.

Accounts associated with Families, Children and Social Development Minister Jean-Yves Duclos, Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett and Rural Economic Development Minister Bernadette Jordan have been targeted, their offices told CBC News.

Liberal MPs Terry Sheehan, Anthony Rota, Adam Vaughan and Sherry Romanado also have posted messages to their Facebook pages asking constituents to remain vigilant and report any suspicious communications to Facebook.

And while it's not clear how many MPs were affected overall, a Conservative Party spokesperson said the leader's office is aware of about a dozen Conservative MPs who were targeted, but declined to give names. A spokesperson for the NDP said the party is unaware of any impersonation attempts targeting New Democrat MPs.

Ontario Economic Development Minister Vic Fedeli also has been targeted by the scam, according to a report from CTV News.

The MPs say the impersonators took profile photos from their Facebook pages and used them to create their own Facebook Messenger accounts which were not linked to any Facebook accounts.

They said the impersonators used the bogus Facebook Messenger accounts to strike up conversations with constituents and ask them if they wanted to apply for federal financial grants. In some cases, people were asked to make deposits in order to secure the grants. The impersonators didn't ask for personal financial information directly — but getting that information seemed to be their intent, said Rota and Sheehan.

"The last thing we wanted was someone getting scammed by what they believed was our account," Rota told CBC News Thursday. He said his office never solicits people through Facebook but his staff will respond to questions if constituents contact them through social media.

Sheehan said the Liberal Party sent out an internal email Tuesday warning of "multiple reports" of Liberal MPs' accounts being impersonated. On July 8, Women and Gender Equality Minister Maryam Monsef sent out a tweet reminding Canadians to make sure they're following authentic accounts.

Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen was targeted this year by a fake Facebook profile intended to defraud refugee claimants. His office confirmed he wasn't hit by this impersonation scam.

A spokesperson for Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould, who also wasn't targeted by the scam, said in an emailed statement that the government is aware of the issue. CBC News asked if the government knew of any victims to date, but the statement didn't answer the question.

"It is important that not only Members of Parliament, but all citizens, remain vigilant and have an understanding of common online deceptive tactics like phishing or trolling," Meg Jaques said in the statement.

Both Sheehan, who represents the riding of Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., and Rota, who represents Nipissing-Timiskaming, Ont., said they became aware of the fake accounts last weekend when constituents and friends contacted them.

"I got some messages on Facebook from friends … who said, 'Something doesn't seem right. There's someone offering a grant for a deposit that we would have to make,'" Rota said.

Assistant Deputy Speaker Anthony Rota recently put a Facebook post on his page warning constituents to be wary of impersonation scams. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Rota and Sheehan reported the fake accounts to Facebook and to the House of Commons' IT department. Sheehan said he also changed his Facebook page profile picture in order to distinguish it from any phoney accounts.

"I think nipping it in the bud is the best thing you can do," Sheehan said, adding that Facebook took down the fake accounts in about a day.

None of the sources CBC News spoke to could say who is behind the scam. Asked if the impersonators were domestic or foreign actors, Facebook did not comment.

The company said an emailed statement, however, that it is taking the issue seriously.

"We do not tolerate misrepresentation on our platform and have worked quickly to disable imposter accounts," said a Facebook spokesperson. "We will continue to monitor and take action in line with our policies and strongly encourage people to use the reporting and blocking tools within Messenger."

The company said it was alerted to the scam through its email-based cyber hotline.


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