The scope of a scam involving the sale of shipping containers in Canada is growing, as an increasing number of legitimate companies that sell the structures say their good names are being used by fraudsters to swindle victims out of thousands of dollars.
More victims are coming forward, too, following a CBC News story earlier this week that exposed how the scams target unsuspecting buyers looking to purchase containers online, sight unseen.
CBC News knows of 12 people who say they've lost a total of almost $70,000 after paying for shipping containers they never received. The Kijiji ads for the so-called sea cans were placed by individuals who, when contacted, said they were part of two "companies" — Box Containers LLC and Big Max Containers.
It's unclear whether the two operations are connected, but both falsely use addresses for other, legitimate companies to make themselves look credible.
A third suspect operation, called Star Max Containers, is accused of ripping off a Quebec couple by more than $4,000.
Now, one of the largest shipping container companies in Canada is disclosing that its name is also being used by scammers masquerading as real salespeople.
"This has been an ongoing issue for us since late 2019," said Sandra Paoliello of ATS Containers, which is based in Montreal and has locations across Canada.
"We had started receiving phone calls from people who had sent funds believing that they were dealing with representatives of our company."
She said the victims had answered a Kijiji ad, even though her company does not sell containers on that website. Last year, the scam moved to Facebook and Facebook Marketplace, where Paoliello said the scammers have copied her company's Facebook profile, pictures, content and videos, claiming they are ATS.
Getting '5 to 10 calls a day'
There has been a growing trade in new and used shipping containers for alternative uses, including storage and office space and even living quarters.
Paoliello said after people make payments by e-transfer, the scammers refuse to respond to them. The victims then call her company, looking for their containers.
"Containers are quite seasonal, so in the peak summer [and] fall months, [we get] many calls a day. I would say five to 10 calls a day," she said.
Some call ATS seeking answers after becoming suspicious and hesitating to send cash. Others call after losing, on average, between $1,000 and $3,000, said Paoliello. Many victims are small businesses or individuals who don't have money to spare.
She said conversations with those who have been scammed are "difficult," and the company has to defend itself and explain that it, too, is a victim.
"It's been very hard to hear the stories of people who have lost funds," said Paoliello. "Being on the receiving end of their anger and frustration has been difficult, very difficult."
The real ATS has put a fraud warning on its website and its Facebook page, warning of the scam.
'I don't think this is going to stop'
Paul LeBlanc of Van Blanc Ent. Inc., can relate. His family-owned business in Brantford, Ont., also sells shipping containers.
"One client in Toronto came in and lost over $34,000 US to these guys in October," he said. "Another last week in Hamilton lost $4,000."
LeBlanc said his company name and address haven't been used by scammers, but about a year and a half ago, someone arrived at his business wanting to take pictures of containers for his boss. The man took about 45 photos.
"Then about two days later, all these pictures ended up on Kijiji ads all across the province of Ontario with our boxes, with our trucks, with our containers in our yards, at $1,000 cheaper than what we were trying to sell them for," he said.
LeBlanc is frustrated by the inability to put a lid on the scam and said people need to be more careful before sending money to someone they don't know. A shortage of containers is only making the problem worse while scammers rake in thousands of dollars a day, he said.
"Whenever there is a shortage of containers, the prices escalate, so when people hear they can buy a $4,500 brand-new 20-foot container for $2,000, I don't think this is going to stop," he said.
Scammers target Quebec company
Matthew Del Rossi with DMD Containers in Lachine, Que., is facing a similar situation. He found out from potential customers that someone was impersonating his company on Facebook and Kijiji. One of his customers lost $3,800.
"When you look at their Facebook or Kijiji page, it has our address, our actual website, but then the email and phone number is their own," said Del Rossi.
He said his company requires advance payment from new customers and he worries those customers will be reluctant to pay up front.
"These are customers who [the scammers] are stealing away from us," he said. "It is going to tarnish our name in the end because not everyone is going to trust DMD Containers, because they will wonder, are we being scammed again or is this a legitimate company?''
Police reports filed
Stéphane Desparois of Gatineau, Que., contacted CBC News after seeing the original story to say he, too, lost money in the scam.
He saw a Kijiji ad from a company called Star Max Containers that used the address of a legitimate container business in Bridgewater, N.S., called Eco Box Containers and Storage Ltd.
It's unclear whether Star Max is associated with Box Containers LLC or Big Max Containers. Desparois said he paid $4,020 for a container that was never delivered. He has since filed a police complaint.
"I will never again do an e-transfer to somebody that I don't know," Desparois told CBC News, adding he will only pay for purchases by credit card from now on, so he is protected if the product isn't delivered.
Paoliello with ATS Containers said she has also filed a report with police.
She initially went to the RCMP, but said she was told it was not their issue, even though her company is national and has clients in New Brunswick and Ontario who were defrauded. RCMP referred her to the Sûreté du Québec. She said she has been told they are investigating, but has no indication of how the probe is going or what will come from it.
U.S. group worried about fraud
Eco Box Containers and Storage Ltd. has been inundated with messages from people since CBC News first reported on the scam.
Owner Pattianne Hatfield said she's heard from three additional victims who've each lost between $1,000 and $3,000, as well as potential victims and other companies whose information has been used.
She's also been contacted by people still wanting to buy containers from her.
"People realize there are scammers out there, but they also realize there are bona fide companies out there that are selling containers and providing good service," she said.
All of this has caught the attention of the National Portable Storage Association, a trade organization based in the U.S. that represents the portable storage industry. It has 550 members around the world, including 45 in Canada.
"We are very concerned about this issue and it goes against everything we have done to build trust and integrity with customers and communities around the world," CEO Mark DePasquale said in an interview.
He said while the association hasn't heard directly from members impacted by scammers, it has sent out a notice warning about the scam after becoming aware of the CBC News story.
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