LAKELAND – After a summer with an unprecedented dry growing season, animal feed is in short supply compared to previous years across several parts of North America.
There is now a high demand for hay, which is being sold at increased costs. High costs for animal feed has created a surge in online hay sales scams that began earlier this summer, says Const. Sean Milne, who works on the Alberta RCMP Provincial Financial Crime Team.
For that reason, Alberta RCMP is warning rural and farming communities to be aware of fraud that affects consumers looking to purchase hay.
One of the recent fake hay sale scams saw a Cold Lake resident lose $1,800 in an online buy-and-sell marketplace, Milne told Lakeland This Week.
“In all reported cases of hay fraud, the maximum individual deposit sent to scammers was over $5,000, and the minimum was $1,000,” said Milne, adding the larger issues with online scams such as these, is in many cases they are linked to organized crime.
“The one that hit Cold Lake, we also have tied to Drumheller and Sexsmith near Grand Prairie and other cases. It's definitely not individualized to any particular geographic area. They're crossing provinces and areas within provinces.”
There have been fewer reports out of the Lakeland area compared to other regions, however, RCMP have received similar reports out of Barrhead, Evansburg and Drayton Valley, he said. For whatever reasons, hay scams have been occurring in southern Alberta more often than in the north based on reports Alberta RCMP has been fielding.
According to Milne, across several RCMP jurisdictions this year, various fraudsters and groups have scammed victims out of approximately $64,000. This figure is likely much higher with many cases likely not being reported.
The Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre speculates that only five per cent of fraud is actually reported to authorities, with the vast majority not being reported at all.
The RCMP does have active investigations into fraud cases and can trace the movement of the money quite readily, but in general fraud is a very underreported offense, Milne said.
“The way (fraudsters) take money is usually by the e-transfer system — and that is very traceable. It just becomes a question of what they do with it after they initially take the (money) and how they move it out of the country because in many cases, we do suspect organized crime involvement,” said Milne. “We have indications that money is being funneled out of Canada in a lot of these cases, but we do have suspects domestically that are assisting in that.”
There can be a variety of reasons why individuals don’t report fraud, but without reports from the public police lose opportunities to track down larger fraud outfits.
“Some people may accept it as a buyer beware situation and just move on. Some people, it's out of embarrassment that they're not willing to report that they fell prey to this kind of thing. In some cases, there's possibly a belief that there aren't any investigative options. So, they believe there's no point in reporting because (there is) nothing police can do — which isn't the case,” Milne reiterated.
Tips for spotting potential online scams
Keeping an eye out for key indicators can help identify a potential scam across online selling platforms, said Milne.
Typically, sellers will only communicate through text messaging and avoid phone conversations.
Sellers can be located anywhere in the world and will get the attention of buyers by having a specific or specialized knowledge of hay products.
Pricing will be attractively low and will be consistent with the previous year’s market price.
Often, there will be an insistence of a 50 per cent deposit but once the deposit is received, there may be excuses about delayed delivery, and then communication stops.
When it comes to online scams, Milne said “The general trend is always to secure the deposit. The scammers know that nobody's going to pay entirely for something upfront. But, if they create a situation of urgency, or say other buyers are interested or things like that, it can usually entice people to put some money upfront and that's where they make their profits. As soon as they can't squeeze any more money out upfront, they drop contact.”
With hay scams persisting through the summer and current conditions of feed shortage heading into the winter, the RCMP wants to remind people to think twice before they reach out for a deal they think is too good to pass up.
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