Giuliana Perri and her wife were leaving the Farm Boy near Masonville Mall Thursday evening when a man approached them to ask a favour.
The stranger told them his cab driver wouldn’t accept a cash payment because of the COVID-19 pandemic and asked the couple to pay his $8 fare using their debit card and he'd reimburse them, Perri said Monday.
Perri’s wife gave the driver her debit card to make the payment and the passenger gave her a $5 bill after the couple didn’t have change for a $20, Perri said.
The couple had no idea they had just become the victims of a scam London police say has cost victims at least $100,000 – a figure that could increase as more complainants come forward – in the past week.
Perri, 26, and her wife, 31, didn't realize anything was amiss until Friday night when their debit card was declined at a variety store, prompting them to suspect immediately the previous night’s good deed.
“I said, 'Oh my god, I hope that wasn’t a scam,'” Perri said.
That’s when her wife looked at her debit card and realized it wasn’t even hers.
“It was probably a previous victim’s,” Perri said.
A quick scan of their online banking activity showed nearly $3,100 in withdraws and purchases, Perri said.
“What’s funny is the $8 (cab) charge was never posted to our account,” she said. “It was a fake debit machine. It was just to get your pin.”
They contacted their bank to deactivate the debit card and were told it would take 10 to 15 days before the fraud department concluded its investigation and determined whether they’d be reimbursed.
Perri also reported the fraud to police and was told by an investigator she was among of eight victims from Thursday night.
London police warned the public on Monday to be vigilant to the scam after received reports from 20 people who collectively lost $100,000.
“It's not uncommon to see the same situation played out with a number of different victims,” Const. Sandasha Bough said.
The 20 people who were defrauded between Wednesday and Monday at multiple locations in London lost between $1,100 and $13,000 each, police said.
In all of the cases, the suspect told victims the cabbie wouldn’t accept cash because COVID, and asked them for help in paying their fare with a false promise to repay the money, police said. The victim is given a debit machine, pays the amount displayed and is handed their receipt and a what they believe is their card.
The victim later discovers large sums of money were removed from their accounts and their debit card was swapped for a lookalike, police said.
Investigators released surveillance images of the suspects and their vehicle Monday.
One man, between 18 and 20, was wearing a puffy jacket, Timberland boots, a black hat and a medical mask. The second man, around 40, was wearing all black clothing, a black hat and medical mask.
The vehicle is a four-door sedan with a fake taxi sign on the roof, believed to be a silver 2014 Nissan Altima.
Police are reminding residents about the potential dangers of offering money to strangers.
“We’re telling people to be wary. If something appears suspicious, then trust your gut,” Bough said.
“If you are in a situation like this, get the best description possible,” including the individuals involved, the vehicle and license plate, and call police right away, she added.
This isn't the first time police in Ontario have issued public warnings about this scam. In the fall, Toronto police alerted the public after dozens of people reported falling for the scam.
Perri and her wife, meanwhile, said the experience has left them feeling violated and distrustful of strangers.
“Our faith in humanity is really lost and it shouldn’t be at a time like this,” Perri said.
"We are one of the lucky ones, because we have savings. We can survive without that $3,000. My heart goes out to the victims who don't have anything beyond that."
Anyone with information related to the frauds is asked to contact police at 519-661-5515, ext. 5257, or Crime Stoppers at 1-800-222-8477.
Calvi Leon, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter and Dale Carruthers, The London Free Press, London Free Press