It wasn’t long after Barbra Brousseau and her husband, Eric, wired more than $13,000 to purchase a used vehicle that they knew they had been duped.
Until that point, the Kingston couple had been negotiating a deal to buy a 2003 Ford Excursion from a Montreal-area woman named “Kate,” who said she was working overseas.
The ad for the vehicle — which was supposedly located in the Yukon — was posted on Kijiji, a popular classifieds website. The Brousseaus agreed to purchase it in August 2010.
Because she was out of the country, Kate said she would arrange the sale through eBay Motors, an online website used to buy and sell used vehicles in Canada. The vehicle would then be shipped to them, the seller promised.
Skeptical, the Brousseaus ran the vehicle’s identification number through their mechanic, asked around for advice on using eBay Motors and even asked their bank for input.
Everything appeared genuine.
“All of the (correspondence) looked legitimate,” Barbra Brousseau said. “The bank transferred the money, and within 30 minutes of the transfer we got an e-mail from the seller.”
Brousseau said the message “just didn’t seem right.” It contained sloppy grammar and seemed out of character for the woman with whom they had been communicating for nearly a month.
The couple said they immediately contacted eBay Motors to confirm the transaction.
They received a grim response.
“They told me, ‘You’re in trouble,’ ” Brousseau said. The seller had used a fraudulent e-mail address to mimic eBay.
The Brousseaus called police and their credit union in an attempt to freeze the transferred funds, she said. At that point, however, the bank claimed there was little that could be done.
The Brousseaus had just joined the more than 10,400 people in Canada who fell victim to mass-marketing fraud in 2010.
According to the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre, mass-marketing fraud includes scams such as Internet fraud, telemarketing fraud and identify fraud — an area of crime that continues to cost Canadians millions of dollars each year.
Last year, the number of victims grew to more than 11,800.
When the Brousseaus were contacted by a detective at the Kingston Police Force a week later, they were told the money had been withdrawn slowly over the period of one week.
“The moment that we knew it was a fraud, at the most they had only withdrawn $600 from the account,” Brousseau said, frustrated with her bank not being able to undo the transfer or alert the seller’s financial institution of a potential fraud.
“The subsequent withdrawals happened over the next week.”
Det.-Const. Daniel Silver, the officer who investigated the Brousseaus’ case, tracked the transfer to an account holder in Montreal, who was captured on video withdrawing cash from his account.
Silver said he contacted the man, a 31-year-old immigrant from Romania, via Facebook and was able to convince him to come to Kingston to be questioned.
The man, who was eventually granted diversion in court, is not being named.
Silver said the man told police he accepted the transfer on behalf of an acquaintance — a man he knew from the Romanian community in Montreal who convinced him to start a vehicle-importing business.
Silver said the man, claiming he was a victim as well, withdrew the Brousseaus’ money to give to his partner.
He did not keep a dime, he claimed.
“He claims he didn’t know it was money obtained through a scam,” Silver said. “At best, he was very negligent and foolish.”
Silver said the “architect” of the scheme, 31-year-old Nicolaie Vladescu, was never caught.
There is a warrant for his arrest, although Silver said he believes Vladescu has fled the country.
The man who received the money was ordered to pay the Brousseaus $1,000, and was not convicted in court.
“At the end of the day, he took responsibility … and the courts agreed to go by way of diversion,” Silver said. “Typically, upon conviction in a fraud case, quite often the court will order restitution, but they are not necessarily going to order the amount that was stolen because they take into account the ability to pay.”
The Brousseaus, however, believe that was unfair.
“No one asked us … what the impact of us repaying the loan would be,” Brousseau said. “We have to repay that (money).
“It (was) frustrating that the person who was part of the fraud (had) his financial situation taken into account but the impact on our financial situation was not taken into account.”
Brousseau criticized the Crown attorney who prosecuted the case for not seeking their input and not informing them of any court dates.
“So this person will be able to travel, this person will be able to continue on with really just a $1,000 payment,” she said. “I don’t even know if he was in court. I don’t know if a lawyer showed up on his behalf or if it was done by electronic means.
“I don’t know if he was inconvenienced at all.”
Brousseau said the couple struggled to understand why the man was only ordered to pay $1,000, and suggested there might be a way to recoup the total amount over a longer period of time.
“What’s $50 a month?” she said. “It would take forever but maybe, eventually, he would get tired of paying $50 a month and pay it off.
“It’s just so frustrating that we’re still paying for nothing. Absolutely nothing.”
Brousseau said the impact of losing more than $13,000 has been difficult.
“There was certainly a level of stress,” she said. “We were upfront with the kids with what had happened and (how) we were going to be paying for something that we didn’t have (and) the extras aren’t going to be there for the next little while while we pay off this debt. Thirteen thousand dollars is not insignificant, at least, not to us.”
Silver said the Brousseaus’ case is just one example of the financial and emotional impact fraud-related crimes can have on victims.
“I always hear people say fraud is a victimless crime,” he said. “It’s not violent, but it’s not a victimless crime.
“There’s definitely a sense of violation.”
Silver said the feeling of being violated is also common in identify-theft cases.
“Someone you don’t know has your name, your date of birth, your driver’s licence number, your address, and the victims’ bank account is emptied,” Silver said.
“You feel helpless and it can be traumatic for people.”
According to Kingston Police, last year detectives investigated 438 cases. This year, there have already been more than 90 occurrences investigated.
Since June 2011, Kingston police have laid 224 fraud-related charges.
When it comes to mass marketing fraud, the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre reports Canadians lost more than $48 million last year alone. That’s up almost $10 million from 2010, according to a report.
As a result of identify theft, the Centre reports Canadians lost more than $13 million last year, up more than $3.6 million from 2010.
The figures take into account all complaints reported to the centre, but Silver said it’s hard to get accurate figures because not all incidents are reported to police.
“A lot of people won’t report these types of crimes because they’re embarrassed,” Silver said. “It wouldn’t surprise me at all if … more than 50% of the victims are not reporting it.”
Silver gave an example of a case he’s currently working on where, based on a victim’s complaint, he traced a bank account to the alleged scammer. Silver said the account revealed several victims in the area.
“Only one other person reported it to police,” he said. “The other ones did not.”
Having been victimized, the Brousseaus said they understand that sense of embarrassment.
“You just feel ridiculous,” Brousseau said, “because we really felt that we had talked to a lot of people. You think that because you’re intelligent, you’re educated … that it won’t happen. You don’t think that there’s people out there doing that.”
Eric Brousseau agreed.
“It’s feeling foolish and embarrassed”, he said. “Do you really want to tell everybody you just blew $13,000 in getting scammed?”
The Brousseaus agreed to speak with the Whig-Standard to explain how easy it is, even for people who believe they’re being careful, to become victims of fraud.
Looking back, they say there were a number of red flags that they might have heeded.
One came at the time of the money transfer, when the vendors originally gave the Brousseaus a bank account located in Spain. Because the address on the account didn’t match the transit and account numbers, the transfer wasn’t successful. That’s when the account in Montreal was used.
“We’re a little bit more cautious, a little bit more diligent and, certainly online, any purchases are with an established company,” Barbra Brousseau said. “(We’re) doing a lot more face-to-face negotiation as opposed to e-mail negotiation.”
Although Silver said he sees people becoming more aware of existing scams, many people are still susceptible.
“If someone hasn’t been the victim of a crime before … they may just take it for granted that people are above board,” he said. “There are, unfortunately, bad guys that are going to take advantage of that naivete.”
He said people should be skeptical when making online purchases or meeting anyone online who requests money.
“If you’re sending money to someone you don’t know, there’s obviously a risk there,” he said. “My advice is you need a healthy dose of skepticism, you need to question everything you see.
“If you’re going to accept everything at face value, you will be taken advantage of at some point. It’s inevitable.”
Silver said websites such as Kijiji and eBay have areas on their website that inform users about scams, and some websites even have a verification process to deter fraudsters.
Money transfer services, such as Western Union, make it difficult to trace money sent to criminals because often they only need a code to claim funds.
Silver urges people using the Internet to purchase goods to assess the value of each item. If it’s being sold for much less than it’s worth it should be avoided, he said.
Because of the nature of online scams, Silver said there are barriers to securing a conviction in court. This is especially true when money is sent overseas, he said.
“If the money is going overseas or anywhere outside of Canada it’s virtually impossible to identify the suspects and certainly next to impossible to prosecute them,” he said.
Although there may have been thousands of dollars stolen, Silver said it’s often not worth going beyond Canada’s border.
“Realistically, we’re not going to be extraditing people for that, even if we can identify the person,” he said.
For scams that occur outside of Ontario, however, Silver said there are changes that need to take place to make it easier to secure a conviction.
“Unfortunately, our justice system is set up that when it comes to getting production orders, search warrants, etc., it’s different for each province and it’s a lot harder to get one for another province.
“That’s not to say it’s impossible, but it does have its challenges.”
Even if a change is laid, he said prosecutors often won’t pay to have the accused brought to Ontario. This is also true for transporting witnesses who live outside of the province.
“So you hope that the person’s going to plead guilty, or something along those lines,” Silver said.
Silver said he’d like to see the process streamlined, making court orders valid across the country.
“Why wouldn’t it be?” he said. “It’s still the Criminal Code, which is federal and applies to all of Canada.”
Silver referred to the United Kingdom, where a database for fraudulent activity has been created. The database includes information from police, financial institutions, health-care institutions, insurance companies and others who track fraud when it occurs.
This makes it easier for police to track suspicious activity, and ultimately bring a stronger case to court, Silver said.
“By comparison, we’re playing blind man’s bluff in the dark,” he said. “They’re operating with the lights on.”
In regards to privacy, Silver said a database would still protect people’s rights because police would still require a warrant from the courts. In the case of the UK, he said, the database has allowed police to identify networks of organized criminals.
“My understanding is they’re starting to spread that system throughout Europe and eventually there will be a European-wide network,” he said. “We need one for North America. There’s no way around it.”
As technology evolves, Silver said, so do scams and fraud.
This includes the growing use of prepaid cellphones (as opposed to land lines or cellphones on contract), and voice over Internet protocol, which allows users to place long-distance — and often untraceable — calls over the Internet.
“Internet cellphone technology is practically the wild west,” Silver said. “It is very difficult to track these criminals down by way of the phones that they’re using.”
The use of technology is especially hitting seniors hard, he said, as many fraudsters are targeting the elderly.
Because of this, Kingston Police have assigned a detective to investigate elder abuse, which often involves scams and embezzlement, he said.
Silver encourages residents to report fraud and attempts to defraud to the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre, which compiles data that can be used to identify activity across the country, and can be used to alert the public to ongoing schemes.
The centre can be contacted at 1-888-495-8501 or by e-mail at [email protected].