Duct cleaning scams are nothing new, but postings targeted at local Facebook groups seem to have been on the rise over the last few months.
The posts read very similarly to one another, often touting things like a "special discount" for the first few commenters and "unlimited vents and ducts." The company name is almost never included in the post, and those who show interest are sent private messages by the original poster.
They're often posted from newly-made accounts that are made to look like genuine residents of the communities the groups are made for, often sharing posts from local organizations and setting their locations to a specific town or community.
Tammy Romaniuk, who administrates several local groups, says she's been seeing the posts pretty regularly for six months to a year.
Even though many local groups are private, meaning those wishing to join must first be accepted into the group by an admin, Romaniuk says these fake profiles find ways to slip through the cracks.
"We ask screening questions, one of them is 'What area of Okotoks do you live in?' Most just say 'Okotoks' or they say 'yes.' That right there is a red flag. I had one this morning that was actually specific, but he had only been on Facebook for four days, had four friends who all live in foreign countries, and probably 80 shares from the Town of Okotoks page just in the last 24 hours... the last month or so, they've gotten a lot more sophisticated."
She says she's had to get savvier and savvier as to how to identify these profiles, but there are a few things she looks out for.
"The length of time they've been on Facebook, the amount of friends, that pages they follow, are they pretty varied or does it look like they just loaded up on a whole bunch of local things? When there isn't any emotion or commentary, or anything unique about their posting. If they just hit 'share' ten times in ten minutes, but they have nothing to say about it. That's a big one."
Julie Matthews, Senior Investigator with the Consumer Investigations Unit of Service Alberta, says duct cleaning scams that claimed to reduce the chance of contracting COVID-19 prompted warnings from several organizations last year.
"Some agencies had put out alerts during the COVID-19 pandemic to warn people that any company making claims about furnace cleaning, duct cleaning, and the fact that doing such a service would reduce the chance of contracting the virus, of would increase killing the germs of many viruses in your home. I believe that some companies, whether they be legitimate companies or fraudulent ones were making claims like that."
She says a wide range of COVID-related scams surfaced last year, including ones related to PPE and paid vaccinations, preying on the anxiety brought about by the pandemic and the fact that people were spending more time at home and online.
Matthews says there are warning signs to watch for when it comes to fraudulent postings in general.
"Too good to be true is probably number one. Either the price is too good to be true, they're offering so many services for a price seems a little bit too good to be true, that's something to watch for."
She continues, "the usual spelling and grammar errors, punctuation, these may seem like very simple straightforward things, but scammers and fraudsters are often based outside of Alberta and outside of Canada. They aren't familiar with the type of language and posts that these types of legitimate businesses would use in Alberta, so often there's just something odd about the post, if you read it, it just doesn't flow quite right."
Many scammers of all kinds rely on up-front payments, often blocking or cutting off contact with victims.
"They will not ask for money upfront, even in a COVID-19 pandemic situation where people are limiting some of their interactions with people in person, businesses will not do that. That is a major red flag for any business that would ask for money upfront like that."
She says while trustworthy companies may give a quote or an estimate ahead of time, they'll often first want to inspect the house in order to gauge the scope of the job.
While there are a fair share of fraudulent postings out there, it shouldn't scare you off from legitimate local businesses.
"Is it a legitimate company, and maybe they're just not going about it the right way and their posts have some spelling errors in them and so it's much harder to track it? As consumers, we just have to be so smart and savvy these days to catch what's really going on just make sure we don't rush into anything and ask a lot of questions."
She says legitimate businesses will happily field questions from prospective clients, whereas fraudsters often grow impatient or give quick, cold responses.
Testimony from friends and loved ones is always a good sign, as well as a good base of reviews on Facebook or Google business pages.
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