KITCHENER -- Residents in Waterloo Region lost more than $290,000 to gift card scams in 2020, according to police.

In a release, officials said 167 people fell victim to scams, resulting in a collective loss of $293,867.

Twenty-three people also fell victim to scams between Jan. 1 and Feb. 28, 2021, for a combined loss of $57,430. Police said people lose an average of $2,100 per scam.

Last year, Patrizia Ottema said she received an email from someone she thought was a friend asking for a favour. She purchased $500 worth of gift cards and her friend promised to pay her back. However, after she sent the cards, Ottema said she realized it was a scam.

"I just started to cry and apologized to my husband profusely," she said. "I just said 'I'm so sorry for being such an idiot.'"

In the release, officials said scams are usually done through email or over the phone. Someone impersonates an acquaintance, friend, employee, supervisor or church member and asks victims to buy gift cards and give out the activation PINs for the card.

They said the scammers will most often ask for Google Play, iTunes or Amazon gift cards.

"It is something we see relatively often," Const. Andre Johnson with WRPS said. "We're just asking people to be vigilant to double check and make sure the request is legitimate and actually talk to the person to ensure they're the ones actually making the request."

Police reported women were more likely to fall victim to the scams than men. People in the 70 to 79 age group were the most frequent victims, followed by people aged 20 to 29.

Officials described one incident where a 51-year-old woman received a call from a bank representative who told her she'd been the victim of credit card fraud. She said the scammer told her to buy $1,000 worth of Google Play gift cards and provide activation codes. She was then asked to make another purchase of $600. When they asked her to make a third purchase, police said the woman realized she'd been the victim of a crime.

In another scam described by police in the news release, officials said a 40-year-old man got an email from his work supervisor asking for his number. He gave out his personal number and got a text asking for gift cards for clients. He was told to buy 10 gift cards for $200 each and then give the PINs for the cards. He was told to make another purchase and questioned the request once the transaction was complete. Police said he followed up with his supervisor, who said they didn't make the request.

Police have some tips to prevent to recognize and prevent frauds, including:

  • Confirming the legitimacy of requests and initiating a conversation with the sender
  • Resisting pressure to act quickly and watch out for urgent pleas playing on emotions
  • Trusting your instincts
  • Contacting police or someone you trust with any doubts

Incidents of suspected fraud can be reported to police or the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre.