Veronica Azuray received a phone call March 2 that has upended her life.
She’s almost broke, she has lost faith in the banking system, and she has an urgent fraud warning for her fellow seniors.
Azuray, who is 80 and lives in Blewett near Nelson, lost $3,000 in a banking scam and she still doesn’t know if she can retrieve her money.
“You can’t just trust someone who phones you,” she said. “I did, and I paid for it.”
The man on the line introduced himself as Henry, a fraud investigator from CIBC who was looking into some illegal activity at her bank, which is the CIBC branch in Nelson.
It took Azuray considerable time, money and stress to realize that Henry himself was the fraudster, and he had nothing to do with CIBC.
Henry told her someone had tried to transfer $1,200 from her account to California, and to tried to use her funds to purchase something on Amazon. He said he was investigating this and implied that the local CIBC branch was somehow complicit in this fraud.
She said he was very smooth and professional sounding. He told her she should not trust anyone at CIBC and that she should keep this conversation private, otherwise it might jeopardize his investigation.
Azuray describes herself as a vulnerable senior. Her health issues include a difficult and still-ongoing recovery from a fall that injured her knee and back. She is still in pain and her mind is affected by painkillers.
She is unfamiliar with online banking, or online anything for that matter. She has no computer, no email and a debit card that she never uses except at a bank teller window. So the story “Henry” told her was both confusing and convincing to her.
In a second phone call, Henry told Azuray he was going to deposit $3,000 in her account and he wanted her to use it to buy gift cards from several clothing brands including Lululemon, and she was to purchase those from Shoppers Drug Mart, Save-On-Foods, Safeway, or 7-Eleven.
He told her that this scheme was a ploy that would help to further his investigation.
“I told him I would try to be helpful,” Azuray said. “He told me he really appreciated this.”
Henry told her again that she should not trust anyone at her bank. He told her there was a new manager there, and implied they were part of the scheme he was investigating.
When she visited the bank soon after, she found there was in fact a new manager, and this discovery furthered her belief that Henry must be legitimate.
Azuray withdrew $3,000 from her account. At first she thought she did not have that much in her account, but she did, and she assumed it was the money Henry had promised to deposit.
She bought the cards, then called Henry back. He asked her to give him the numbers of the gift cards, which she did.
She did not ask herself what she would do with cards from Lululemon because she thought it was the fraud investigator’s money and she helping to further a fraud investigation.
It turns out it was her money. She in fact had had a bit more than $3,000 in the bank at the time, more than she thought, and Henry had not deposited anything. Presumably he knew her bank balance when he asked her to spend $3,000.
Now Azuray was stuck with $3,000 in gift cards she had no use for, and no money in the bank.
She tried to use one of the cards, and a store manager told her it had already been cashed. Subsequent questions in stores came up with the same answer. The cards had already been used by someone else.
Azuray decided to talk to her son, although she had misgivings about breaking her confidence with Henry.
“I mean, I trust my son. He is very smart guy. He told me, ‘Mom, are you kidding me? Go right away to police. This is definitely fraud.’”
She told her story to the Nelson Police Department, who convinced her to talk to the bank.
When she talked to the staff at the bank, they referred her to their fraud investigation department in Toronto.
She talked to CIBC head office staff there on March 6. They said they would investigate this and call her within 10 days. They did not call her, so she called them back.
“I told them, listen, I am broke. I need to pay my bills. I am really in trouble.”
They told her there was nothing they could do, that they would not reimburse her money, and told her to get a new debit card.
On March 27 at about 10 a.m., the Nelson Star left a message seeking comment from the CIBC fraud investigation department.
Two hours later, Azuray got a phone call from CIBC’s national customer care department, asking her to repeat the story she had already told twice, and telling her that they were investigating. Two hours after that, Tom Wallis, who works in media relations for CIBC in Toronto, called the Nelson Star. He asked for her story because he had no information on Azuray’s file.
Wallis said his office is reviewing the file.
In an email, Wallis included a number of facts about cyber-crime, including that bank impersonation is on the rise and people should not rely on a caller’s knowledge of their banking information. He said some scams involve the victims being coached to misinform their bank.
At this point, Azuray is not sure about the status of her case at CIBC’s head office — to what degree it will be investigated or whether she can retrieve the $3,000 she lost.
The Nelson Star’s phone calls and emails to the Nelson Police Department asking about the status of this case and whether they were investigating had not been returned as of press time on March 28.