Non-profit issues warning after scammers attempt to swindle nearly $25K by email

The executive director of the Further Education Society is attempting to bring awareness to recent online attempts to defraud the organization of almost $25,000.

“I came in on Monday morning and Niranjan, our senior accountant, brought an invoice for me to authorize the payment,” said Elaine Cairns. “When I looked at the name I didn’t recognize the name but it referenced a big project that we have and it was a large invoice. It was over $25,000.”

“I questioned him about it and he said ‘but you sent me an email on the weekend that said to pay it’.”

Cairns had not emailed the accountant but he provided proof of the correspondence. 

“He showed me his phone where there was several emails that looked like they were from me asking him to pay this invoice. I showed him on my computer that I hadn’t sent anything like that. Then we realized that it was a fraud.”

Niranjan says there were several red flags in the email including a tax rate of 13 per cent and a suspect domain on the email address bearing Cairns’ name. 

Cairns says it appears the Further Education Society was not the lone organization to receive fraudulent invoices. “Our IT guy just happened to be in the office and he checked my email to make sure it wasn’t hacked,” said Cairns. “The next day he got a call from another non-profit client of his that had had the same thing happen to them.”

The Calgary Police Service was notified of the attempt to scam the organization that assists adults with their attempts to resume their education.

Sergeant Andy Macleod of the Calgary Police Service’s cybercrimes investigation team says these types of email scams are extremely common and their prevalence is increasing due to how lucrative they’ve proven for criminals.

“The email spearfishing is something that has been happening to businesses for quite some time now and they are not stopping because they are very successful in what they do,” said Macleod. “They are able to garner millions and millions of dollars from businesses.”

“A lot of times they’ll try to mask the address with a doppelganger email address by adding an extra I or something that is difficult to see with the eye. It’s incumbent upon the receiver to really take a look at what they’re receiving especially when it comes to money transactions.”

Macleod says the would-be scammers use readily available information in their attempts to dupe the recipient.

“There’s websites out there that will advertise who the board of directors are or the CEOs and provide email links to those people. They can craft some pretty creative ways of sending what look like legit emails or requests for transactions and make them look like day-to-day business for them.”

The Calgary Police Service says charities are often targeted due to the likelihood of insufficient security protocols or the use of trusting volunteer staff.

“The criminals are getting more and more creative with what they’re sending out,” said Macleod. “They’re not just sending out ‘Hey, I’m a Nigerian prince’ anymore, they’re trying to make you believe that this is a legitimate form of business and we need you to send us this money to this account.”

“It won’t stop any time soon. It’s incumbent upon us, civilians, to be very aware and diligent of what we’re receiving especially what we’re transacting when it comes to money.”

Macleod recommends using a tried and true method if you question the validity of an email.

“The safest thing that we can do to ensure that we’re sending this to the right people is make an old-fashioned phone call to that person that you think you know and say ‘Is this correct? Is this the transaction we should be making’ and you’ll either get a yes or an absolute no.”

Locating criminals responsible for email scams is nearly impossible due to their use of virtual private networks (VPNs) and proxy servers that shroud their whereabouts.

With files from CTV’s Brenna Rose





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