'Be careful': Vancouver shopkeeper warns potential scam victims

Scammers claiming to be from the Canada Revenue Agency have become a cliché, but they keep using the same stunt — because it keeps working.

A Vancouver shopkeeper is now urging people to be aware of the risks if someone claims to be an official on the phone and tries to convince you to send money or deposit cash in a bitcoin ATM.

"Be careful," said James Kim, who owns a small convenience store in downtown Vancouver with his wife.

Kim said in the two years he's had a bitcoin machine at his store, he's aware of about 10 cases where someone was convinced to go to the little ATM at at the back of the store and deposit their money — never to see it again.

And he's managed to save a handful of people from that fate when he realized something wasn't right.

$13,000 lost in one case

Last week, a 19-year-old North Vancouver man was convinced to make three separate deposits in the machine, totalling $13,000.

North Vancouver RCMP are investigating the case, but say there's little hope of finding the fraudsters or recovering the money.

The bitcoin machine, which is wedged into the shop's back corner next to a regular ATM, has a large red warning sticker on the front, clearly stating that the CRA and RCMP do not demand payment through bitcoin ATMs, and "You are the target of fraud."

But people still fall victim.

Rafferty Baker/CBC

The people on the other end of the phone are compelling and have an answer for everything, including direct fraud warnings.

Convincing callers

That was the experience of Dana MacLeod, who lost $1,500 in January to a bitcoin machine in a Burnaby convenience store.

"I know it seems like an extraordinary story, but I thought, 'OK, but this is possible.'" MacLeod told CBC News.

She had her doubts nearly every step of the way, but the person on the phone was able to convince her to go through with depositing the money.

Rafferty Baker/CBC

Kim said he's not sure if he'll renew the contract with the bitcoin ATM company when it expires next year — he said he doesn't like that people are losing money, but he does get a fee to host the machine, and it brings in business when people stop to buy something on the way out.

Kim points out there's nothing remotely nefarious about bitcoin itself, or the machine, it's scammers making fraudulent phone calls that are the problem. 

"If somebody wants the money [to be] sent by cellphone, you have to suspect that situation," he said. "Please suspect fraud."

Of course the bitcoin deposit is merely a vehicle for the fraud — not the cause itself. There are other common methods fraudsters use to take money from afar, like gift cards.

That's how Dennis Thisner, a Vancouver tech worker, was tricked into sending $900 to a scammer he thought was the CEO of his company in December.

Rafferty Baker/CBC

"It becomes this really weird gut feeling, and you just want to crawl into a corner and disappear," said Thisner.

Police have said there's usually little hope of tracking down the fraudsters, who are able to fake the number they're calling from, and are probably based somewhere overseas. That means the money isn't coming back either.

Get the message out

The advice is usually to make a police report, and spread the word.

That was the message from Kim, MacLeod, and Thisner.

Thisner said, despite the immediate shame and embarrassment he felt after he fell victim, sharing his story was a positive experience. 

His advice for other victims is to avoid sharing the experience directly on social media, where he saw the most negative comments. The CBC News story, on the other hand, prompted reactions from colleagues, friends and family who were encouraging and supportive.

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