Fake websites for real companies are scamming Canadian consumers and businesses

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Avoiding online scams is nothing new for many Canadians, but companies and anti-fraud professionals are warning consumers to watch for fake listings on search engines that try to redirect people to fraudulent versions of familiar companies and brands.

These listings pose as existing businesses and involve new search results popping up, either directing consumers to a fake website that looks similar to the real thing, or providing phone numbers that don’t actually lead to the company in question.

Calgarian Reza Bacchus ran into this issue when trying to search for a new cowboy hat — specifically, a Stetson.

“I came across this StetsonHatCanada.com website … so I just clicked and purchased it, easy,” he said.

LISTEN | No Stetson, No Hat, No Canada — copycat websites dupe consumers: 

Cost of Living7:32Fake websites that look real

 

Bacchus had been searching for stores that carry Stetson hats because he said they have limited availability in Canada. He had previously been unable to buy from the main Stetson website as it did not ship to Canada.

A man with a moustache wears a Stetson hat
Calgary resident Reza Bacchus eventually got his Stetson hat by flying to Vancouver and buying it in a store. (Reza Bacchus)

Bacchus’ initial surprise at a Canadian website should have been a red flag. The website was a fake duplicate. He never received his hat despite spending about $100 US. After a month of waiting, customer service from the real Stetson company confirmed he was scammed.

“I got a disappointing but a friendly email [from Stetson.com]… they had received emails concerning this unauthorized website,” explained Bacchus, who eventually travelled to Vancouver to buy a Stetson hat at one of the few brick and mortar stores to carry them in Canada.

As for the money, he filed a chargeback claim with his credit card company and received his funds back after several months.

It’s difficult to determine exactly how many Canadians are affected by this specific scam, or how much money is lost. According to the RCMP, only 5 to 10 per cent of fraud cases are reported in Canada. In 2023, those reports accounted for $567 million in losses, but that could include everything from immigration fraud to cryptocurrency scams. 

Reported fraud of all types has increased by $187 million since 2021 — and that’s with only a small minority of cases actually reported or tracked.

Travel agent Flight Centre faces dupe phone numbers

A similar problem is hitting customers of the travel agent chain Flight Centre.

“There’s plenty of toll free numbers listed on Google right now,” said executive vice-president Chadd Andre, who explained that when customers are searching for Flight Centre phone numbers in various cities, such as “Flight Centre Scarborough” they are seeing business listings that contain fake phone numbers.

Those phone numbers do not put a caller through to a legitimate branch of Flight Centre, but an unknown call centre.

CBC News called several of the listed numbers and was unable to get anyone to identify themselves or their locations.

A screenshot of a Google map listing with a fraudulent phone number greyed out.
CBC News found multiple fake listings for ‘Flight Centre Calgary’ or ‘Flight Centre Vancouver’ that pointed to incorrect phone numbers. The number has been hidden as it leads to a fraudulent call centre. (Anis Heydari/CBC)

“We’ve found that [the calls] end up in a couple of different call centres, and the second that you press for any sort of identification or try and identify where they are or who they are, they hang up the phone and get all flustered,” said Andre.

The situation led to a long time Flight Centre client in British Columbia losing more than $2,000 after calling one of the fake listings; he was unable to recover those funds as he paid with an uninsured debit card.

According to Andre, many of the duplicate listings are taken down as soon as they are caught, but there is a significant cost in terms of human resources for his company to monitor for impostors.

A man and a woman smile while seated at a cafe table.
B.C. resident Ihsan Abdul Salam lost more than $2,000 after calling a fraudulent listing for Flight Centre to book a flight to Sao Paolo. (Handout by Ihsan Abdul Salam/The Canadian Press)

“It’s a constant endeavour. Our legal team from multiple angles has been involved, to work with Google and to send cease and desist letters where there’s been points of contact,” said Andre, who pointed out that search engines and online providers are quick to remove the offending links but new ones pop up quickly.

Best prevention is awareness, say anti-fraud experts

According to cyber-security analyst and Toronto-based lawyer Ritesh Kotak, the problem of duplicate, impostor businesses is growing.

“I deal with local businesses all the time that call me up and say that there is a site trying to imitate them,” said Kotak, who added that it’s hard to prevent these frauds from occurring in advance.

A balding man wearing a grey blazer over a white collared shirt looks directly at the camera with a slight smile on his face. There are two computer monitors in soft focus in the background.
Cyber security analyst and lawyer Ritesh Kotak says businesses often call him, concerned about fraudulent impersonation. (Keith Whelan/CBC)

“The only thing you can really do is, if you come across these sites then report,” said Kotak, who pointed out that both consumers and businesses can report fraudulent websites and listings to search engines or payment processing companies. 

Kotak speculated that the proceeds of fraud like these fake listings goes to “fund illicit activities around the world.”

The federal government also has resources to report and check for potential fraudulent activity.

“If you think you’ve been scammed or you’re on a malicious website, report that to the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre,” explained Melanie Anderson with the Canadian Centre for Cyber Security, a government agency in Ottawa.

A hot pink graphic says "Real examples of fake online stores"
The federal government offers resources on GetCyberSafe.ca to watch for fraudulent businesses online. (Screenshot/Government of Canada)

“As we see things and identify them as confirmed malicious, then we’re able to take those down,” she added.

Anderson pointed to the federal government’s Get Cyber Safe website as a source for tips on how to spot fake online stores.



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