When it comes to all things sacred and sentimental, Valentine's Day ranks high and scam artists are using it to further their interests.
The Better Business Bureau of Canada (BBB) released its Top 10 Scams last month, and this week cautioned Canadians to watch for relatively low-tech Valentine's Day scams. Along with door-to-door ruses used by fraudsters posing as contractors or salespeople, Valentine's Day scams are considered one of the most tried, tested and true of scamming.
"Valentine's is an emotional time for many people," said Lynda Pasacreta, BBB president and CEO. "But if you're not careful, you could fall victim to a Valentine's Day scam."
Tactics used to separate people from their assets include online dating scams in which an Internet relationship is forged and used as leverage to extricate dollars from one party. Other fraudulent behaviour involves sending information-stealing viruses disguised as E-cards.
"They (swindlers) are very savvy towards their audiences - depending on the medium and where they are, that's how they are going to shape their scams," said Kevin Hollett, communications specialist at the Better Business Bureau serving Mainland BC.
"The reason we release our Top Ten Scams each year is to try to educate people and try to get them to do their research before they agree to purchase any service or item."
In Whistler, the most dependable way to screw an extra dime out of an unsuspecting individual is the rental scam. Methodology varies but most of these take place online and involve long and short-term agreements to rent places that either don't exist or do exist but aren't available.
"Most recently there was a guy who said he was renting out a room in Whistler who advertised online and got a whole lot of people to come look at the room. He took deposits from all of them then disappeared," said Staff Sergeant Steve LeClair of the Whistler RCMP. "The chances of getting your money back are very slim. These people who are committing the offences typically, when they are arrested, have no assets to turn back over to the victims. It is a buyer-beware market out there and if you're going to be renting you should take precautions."
Among the other scams posted on the BBB's Top Ten List are the "not-so-free trial offers," in which free trials for things like diet pills, acne creams and teeth whiteners become automatic subscription services. Typically, these products are advertised on popular social networking sites and come with murky billing terms and conditions that result in repeat invoicing. Fraudulent work-at-home employment offers are also circulated through Facebook and Twitter and can result in "clickjacking," where users post malicious links through their status updates.
"People will agree to a free trial offer before looking at that and a lot of people are experiencing repeated billing, they don't realize they're signing up for a subscription service or that the terms of the trial are really restrictive," continued Hollett, who pointed to Vancouver-based company Striaex as an example. Over the past three years the BBB has received 147 complaints about the company, which offers a free 25 day trial of its acne cream then takes up to three weeks to send it, not allowing adequate time for people to try it before they're automatically committed to a monthly delivery and subsequent billing.
"What we're hearing from a lot of people is that their online shopping is done a little more casually than you would if you were going to a store," said Hollett, who encouraged consumers to do due diligence when shopping online.
Individuals aren't the only roving targets for swindlers. Businesses can be especially susceptible to shams claiming to offer commercial listings in directories that aren't associated with any major circulation.
"We received a report from a business in Squamish that was invoiced and threatened with collection for $1,400 after they agreed to be listed in YellowPage-BritishColumbia.com," he said. "Businesses are targeted via mail and fax, and often times, as was the case with this particular business, someone inadvertently signs an agreement without looking into the offer more closely."
For a full listing of BBB's top scams go to www. mbc.bbb.org.