Scammers on online marketplaces are taking advantage of students

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By Olivia Wiens

Several Ryerson students have raised concerns about fake cheques being sent in exchange for textbooks over Facebook Marketplace. 

In a now-deleted Facebook post in the Ryerson Textbook Marketplace group, second-year biomedical student Angelica Baquiran said she received a message from someone looking to send her a $2,300 cheque for her used textbooks. After she accepted the offer and attempted to cash the cheque, she said her bank account was frozen for several days.

“They were willing to give me $150 for five books,” said Baquiran. Rhonda, the individual who messaged Baquiran, told her that the remaining $2,150 was to go to other students who also sold Rhonda books. 

“I was thinking maybe the other students don’t have an e-deposit feature on their bank apps or maybe they don’t have time to deposit money,” said Baquiran. “So I thought I would do the e-deposit myself and then send [the students] the money.”

Baquiran said Rhonda provided her with three fake emails to send the remaining money to. Based on the messages, Baquiran said Rhonda’s goal was to have Baquiran use her own money to pay the students before her bank discovered that the cheque was fake. 

Although she was slightly suspicious of Rhonda—especially given the amount on the cheque—Baquiran cashed it because she thought it looked real, with her name and the correct date written on the cheque.

The cheque was put on hold by the bank to determine its legitimacy after being deposited online.

Baquiran also mentioned that Rhonda was contacting her everyday to see if she had sent the money to the other students. “She asked me if I would mind sending the money using my own money, and I said, ‘No, who does that?’”

After almost a week of the cheque being on hold, Baquiran’s bank account was frozen. “I called the bank and told them the situation. They told me it’s a scam, it’s a very popular scam.”

Rhonda’s Facebook profile was gone by the time Baquiran tried to find and report it. “I think she blocked me,” said Baquiran.

Baquiran said she did not lose any money and had her account unfrozen shortly after.

According to the Canadian Bankers Association, Rhonda’s scam is known as the “overpayment scam,” where individuals selling items online are primary targets. 

“Beware of people who don’t ask a lot of questions,” said Jeff Thomson, a senior RCMP intelligence analyst for the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre. “Oftentimes buyers claim to be overseas or out of town or across the country, wanting to buy the item unseen, typically offering more money than the asking price. It’s a big red flag.”

Thomson also warned students to be wary of buyers who are requesting the overpaid money to be sent back with a shipment handler who would be picking up the item for sale.

Nicole Ting, a second-year child and youth care student, said she experienced a similar incident in February. 

A person claiming to be with a company that bought and refurbished used books found Ting’s listing on Facebook Marketplace and offered to pay for shipping from Toronto to Vancouver. They told Ting they were going to send her a cheque, and once it was cashed, they were going to have a delivery person pick it up at her residence.

Ting became suspicious of the seller and backed out of the sale. “I said I’m not interested anymore because it sounded like a scam.”

“Merchandise scams are very prevalent today, more so with the pandemic,” said Thomson. “It’s probably one of the biggest categories of fraud we’ve seen over the past year, just simply due to more people hopping online to carry out everyday activities.”

Charles Finlay, the executive director for Rogers Cybersecure Catalyst, a not-for-profit Ryerson organization, said COVID-19 has caused more scams and cybersecurity threats to develop, especially for students who are constantly online. 

“It is important for Ryerson University and all other public sector organizations to understand what the threats are and to mobilize resources to help combat those threats,” Finlay said. 

Roy Jethoo, a 2016 business technology management grad and frequent user of online marketplaces, had a similar experience last year.

A scammer found Jethoo on a Facebook group and took the same approach that Rhonda took with Baquiran. “Everything seemed legit,” said Jethoo.

Once he was told that he had to transfer money to other students, Jethoo backed out of the sale.

As a frequent seller, Jethoo offered advice to students who are selling items through social media on how to avoid getting scammed.

“I sell a lot of stuff online. I sell through Amazon, Kijiji, Facebook Marketplace, everything,” said Jethoo. “My best advice for anybody is to be a trusted seller. Know who you’re selling to. If it seems off, don’t do it. It’s not worth it.”

“What I usually do now is ask for PayPal payments or e-transfers first and then I’ll send the products,” said Jethoo. “If they want, I’ll take a picture of the product so that they know I have it.”

Ting is also more cautious when selling her items online. “I usually just meet up in person and exchange in cash. I like to sell to students because I know that they’ll actually need and use the book.”

Finlay thinks that educating students about cybersecurity issues is the key to preventing further scams. “By raising awareness, we can reduce the effectiveness of these kinds of attacks. It is very important that we educate Ryerson students about what this fraud it looks like and about how they can recognize and avoid being defrauded.”

Thomson recommends reporting any fraud to the online marketplace where the item was up for sale in order to avoid further scam attempts. 

“If it sounds too good to be true, then it’s definitely too good to be true,” said Jethoo.

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