When Carla Smith was watching a Mike Holmes livestream on Facebook, she was hopeful the celebrity contractor would help fix up her old family farmhouse on Six Nations of the Grand River.
"Hello Mike! Need a LOT of help on Six Nations Ontario, my old farmhouse needs help!" Smith, who is Cayuga, Wolf Clan, commented on a Holmes video posted in late September.
Little did the 53-year-old know that comment would lead her right into the clutches of fraudsters, who tried to take $21,000 from her with a bold, elaborate scheme — and the plan might have worked if Smith didn't have a loan from Six Nations.
It's a scam the Holmes team, and now Meta (Facebook's parent company), know about and are trying to stop.
Smith said she's sharing her story to prevent others from falling for the scam.
Smith said that after commenting on the Holmes video, she received a response a day or two later from someone claiming to work with HGTV and who instructed her to send an email. The comment and the profile of the user who messaged Smith are no longer visible.
The complex scam included having her fill out an application form, with information and pictures about her home and her personal information. She didn't put in any financial information.
In the email exchanges with the scammers that were viewed by CBC Hamilton, Smith said the home belonged to her great-grandparents and was rebuilt in the 1920s after the original house burned down.
She has saved $42,000 for repairs, but said in the email she struggled to get the work done because she's the primary caregiver for her mother, who lives with cancer. Smith also said she has two rare genetic diseases impacting her health.
"I want to fix my house for my son and grandson as they will inherit it but I really want it to be good for them before I go on to the Sky World," she wrote.
"I've had a lot of bad things in life and this is the only place I feel at peace."
Smith was eventually told her application was approved, and she'd need to sign a contract and send a 50 per cent deposit, according to the emails.
But the $42,000 Smith has to renovate her home is part of a loan from the Six Nations Housing Department. As a result, they had to speak with the contractor to sort out the details.
That's when everything stopped, Smith said.
She said the housing department told her they hadn't heard back from the contractors. Smith eventually contacted HGTV, only to learn the whole thing was a scam.
"I was just relieved there was no money exchanged," Smith said.
Holmes Group and Meta trying to thwart fraudsters
Holmes took to Facebook to warn his followers of a scam alert on Oct. 20.
"There are people reaching out to my followers pretending to cast for my show. PLEASE be careful, ONLY apply through my website," read his post.
Amanda Heath, a spokesperson for The Holmes Group, told CBC Hamilton the organization has tried to raise awareness of various online scams, including publishing a podcast episode about them.
"Our message is getting out, and homeowners often check with us before engaging with people claiming to work with our team," Heath wrote.
"Carla Smith, for example, reached out to us for verification, and we are so pleased that she did; she saved herself countless hours and dollars of expense simply by using our official website to confirm the claims."
Heath said the company sends cease-and-desist notifications to scammers and reports them to social media platforms.
But Heath said scammers generally just close the email or social media account and open another.
"Combatting online scams is, to a great extent, like holding water in one's open hands," she said.
"Most unfortunately, it is often the elderly or the very desperate that fall for these scams."
She said there are a few ways people can sniff out a scam, including keeping in mind:
The Holmes Group doesn't contact homeowners via social media.
Homeowners have to contact The Holmes Group through an online casting page to be considered.
The Holmes Group doesn't ask for online payments and doesn't finalize money or contracts before visiting in person.
Fake contracts may have typos, incorrect logos, incomplete names or an old address.
Meta wrote in an email to CBC Hamilton that the person who messaged Smith can't access their account unless they confirm their identity by submitting verifying documents.
"Scams hurt our entire community and have no place on our platforms," Meta's email saad. "We take violations to our community standards very seriously, and our first priority is that people have a great experience on our platforms."
Meta said it has a security team of over 40,000 people and has invested in artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning to help protect users. It said in the company's third quarter of 2022, staff disabled 1.5 billion fake Facebook accounts.
The company also encourages users to access the social media platform's reporting tools.
Scammers getting better at stealing money
Jeff Horncastle, acting client and communications outreach officer with the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre (CAFC), said staff haven't received any reports related to Holmes specifically, but "we certainly do have reports of this type of service scam."
Most times, he said, scammers will promise a service, get the money and vanish. In some cases, they'll try to get even more money from the person they're targeting.
"Similar to air duct cleaning, sometimes a service is provided but has little value or the quality of the work far below standards," Horncastle wrote.
Reported money lost to service scams in Canada
The people behind service scams appear to be getting better at stealing money from people, according to data from CAFC.
From 2020 to 2022, the amount of reported money lost from service scams have more than tripled, from $6,343,811 to $20,593,563. The number of reported scams and victims has also virtually doubled during that period.
Horncastle said he couldn't explain why there's been such a rise in service scams.
Number of reported service scams and victims in Canada
He also said the key to avoid being defrauded is to do as much research as possible.
"Try to use reputable companies when possible and do everything possible to confirm the identity of the person you believe you are communicating with," Horncastle wrote.
Smith said she's relieved she didn't give away any money and hopes the scammers get caught.
"I believe in karma," she said.