Police warn public about rise in e-transfer schemes

A person uses a cell phone in this stock image.

Purchasing items through online marketplaces has become an easy and accessible way to pick up electronics, collectibles, clothing, and other goods – often at a good price.

However, the Winnipeg Police Service is warning the public to be cautious when buying through online classified ads. The WPS has seen an increase in fraudulent activity over the last 16 months.

The most common scheme involves items being posted online and typically at a lower price to increase attention. When a potential buyer expresses interest, the seller puts pressure on them to send a deposit through e-transfer as a hold on the item.

Once the e-transfer is sent, the buyer won’t hear from the seller again, or in some cases, be directed to pick up the item from a fake or random address.

The buyer never receives the item and they never get their money back.

“Especially over the course of the pandemic, it’s a pretty prevalent scam,” Const. Jay Murray told CTV News.

Murray said the police are getting 20 to 30 reports of these types of schemes every week. He added these scams aren’t exclusive to Winnipeg and the fraudulent sellers aren’t necessarily located in the city.

“It certainly causes a lot of confusion and a loss of money,” Murray said. “So we’re hoping to educate the public and help them avoid falling prey to this scam.”

Murray said they have noticed people have become less likely to use cash for classified ad transactions since the beginning of the pandemic and that e-transfers have become a preferred way to pay.

However, police said buyers should only use e-transfer payments when they meet the seller in person at a safe location – and to remain there until the payment is accepted. Police also warn that once e-transfers are sent and received, they’re not necessarily recoverable through their bank.

In general, Murray said people “really need to trust their gut” when it comes to buying items online, and to be on the lookout for potentially false ads or items that could have been stolen.

“You can always go back to that old saying – if it’s too good to be true, it probably is,” Murray said. “Far too often, we see people being victimized on these sites.”

The WPS has ‘Buy and Sell Exchange Zones' located at the city's four police stations to help facilitate safe transactions. Murray also suggests meeting at public spaces, like a restaurant parking lot, when completing a sale.

A full list of tips regarding buying and selling online is available on the WPS website.