The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION

If you get an email saying you've just won $1 million, a red flag should go up

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MONTREAL - Do you get emails saying you've just won $1 million, or that you could win a cash prize?

Fraud experts warn that scammers can use this type of promotion to grab thousands of dollars worth of fees and personal information from victims trying to collect on their winnings.

"The simple rule is: If it sounds to good to be true, it is too good to be true," said Ursula Menke, commissioner of the Financial Consumer Agency of Canada.

Consumers are being encouraged through a fraud prevention campaign to recognize scams and report them to police and the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre.

Scams come in many forms and can be done through websites, mail or email, by telephone or in person.

One type of scam offers an investment that promises unusually high returns with little or no risk.

Menke says that "if somebody is offering you 10 per cent or 15 per cent return now in today's market, it's not true."

The hallmark of a fraud scam is to play on emotions by pressuring consumers to act quickly, not to miss out on the opportunity.

"They're always trying to get you to react, not think," Menke said from Ottawa.

Then there's the "romance" scam, the No. 1 consumer fraud for the last three years in terms of money lost, the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre says.

Scammers prowl legitimate online dating sites "like vultures" waiting to strike, said Daniel Williams, a supervisor at the anti-fraud centre in North Bay, Ont.

It can take months of relationship building before the scammer asks a trusting person for money to get out of a jam, Williams said.

The scenario can be that the partner is working overseas and needs some short-term cash, or there's been an accident and needs to pay hospital bills, he said.

"Would you be a dear — we've already fallen in love — and send me $1,500 to tide things over until I get back," said Williams, describing the pitch.

"As long as they think there's another dollar to be had, they will drain you dry," he said

And the impact can go beyond losing money.

"The emotional toll is beyond belief. We've had suicides in all of the various fraud types."

Williams said the perpetrators of fraud scams are members of organized crime worldwide.

"If you make the mistake of sending them the money, it's gone," he said.

The Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre received almost 39,000 complaints of mass marketing fraud with report losses of more than $53 million in 2012.

Another 17,000 claims related to identity fraud and identity theft, and cost victims more than $16 million.

Equifax Canada's John Russo said a lost or stolen social insurance number can help criminals start building another identity, or they can buy a fake number online that can "pass the smell test" and build a fictitious person.

From there, criminals go on social networks sites looking for birthdates, places of work and other personal information to build the identity, said Russo, chief privacy officer for the Toronto credit reporting agency.

"The fraud typically occurs within the first 12 months of the identity being stolen."

Russo said consumers need to check their credit file and be "privacy savvy" because it's complicated to erase identity theft.

"It can take months or up to years to fix," said Russo, whose agency will work with consumers to help them do this.

"You have one reputation. Once it's lost, it's tough to repair."

Consumers also need to be aware that by clicking on a dubious prize website or opening a scam email, they are providing a gateway to their information by potentially allowing thieves to install malware on their computers, experts said.

"Do not answer this thing because then you're legitimizing your email address. And it's one more piece of information about you," Menke said.

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version misspelled Menke's name.

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