Cases like Chapman’s are common
Chapman knew something was wrong when she was trying, and failing, to get in touch with one of Don’s associates for months.
She spoke to lawyers who then enlisted help from Graeme Moss, of Fair Mortgage Solutions in Hamilton. Moss says the issue Chapman actually had — a roof that needed replacing — should have been easily resolved.
“It’s almost like Mrs. Chapman had a wart on her hand… it’s not a big deal to fix,” says Moss. “Then they came along and said ‘You need open heart surgery.’”
While Chapman signed the papers he presented her with, Don was the one pulling the strings. He’d even sit with her while she made calls to everyone from bankers to contractors, and tell her what to say.
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And now Chapman could potentially lose the home she’s lived in for 42 years.
Moss says in his two decades working in the mortgage industry, he’s only ever seen one other case as bad as this.
Unfortunately, situations like Chapman’s are on the rise these days — especially with older adults who live alone.
“It is just really a common thing that homeowners are vulnerable to,” says Sue Labine, spokesperson for the RCMP’s Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre.
In 2020, the CAFC received 900 reports of door-to-door solicitation and of that, 670 victims lost a total of $4.95 million —- up from $4.6 million the year before and $3.6 million in 2018.
However, it’s hard to gauge the full scope of the issue, Labine says, because only a fraction of victims actually report incidents to police because they’re often embarrassed. For anyone who feels any amount of shame around these scams, Labine would remind them that plenty of smart and perceptive people fall for these setups.
“The fraudsters are very good at what they do: They know the best time to reach out to people is early morning when somebody is in a rush to get out the door or late at night when people are really busy,” says Labine. “It can happen to anybody.”
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Fraudsters target the vulnerable
In his efforts to help Chapman, Moss reached out to Christine Zuk, president of Vine and Williams Inc., a licensed insolvency trustee in Hamilton.
Zuk often deals with cases like Chapman’s in her work, but she adds the dollar value involved makes it unusual.
“I think the extent to which he communicated with her to gain her trust is exceptional,” says Zuk. “And it kind of evolved as he gained her trust.”
In cases like Chapman’s, Zuk says the difficulty is that people like Don pick their targets carefully.
“They choose their victims wisely in terms of who could possibly afford them,” says Zuk. “I don’t expect they would ever be on my doorstep.”
Chapman’s best option is to hire a good lawyer and go to court, but as an older person living on a fixed income, that’s not feasible.
Since Chapman now can’t afford the additional mortgage payment, her lender may move to a power of sale, which allows it to foreclose on and sell her home. That process, Zuk adds, moves much faster than the courts would — even if Chapman had the money for that.
Protecting yourself from scams
Under Ontario’s Consumer Protection Act certain products and services — like air conditioners, water heaters and furnaces — are illegal to sell door-to-door. In those cases, a salesperson has to be invited by the homeowner first.
Consumer Protection Ontario, an arm of the provincial government, offers some helpful guidance on dealing with door-to-door salespeople.
Both Labine and the CPO recommend consumers compare quotes from multiple sources and ask for references and referrals from family and friends.
Some other tips they suggest are to:
- Read all the fine print on any contract before you sign.
- Avoid companies that don’t have history or any online presence.
- Resist being bullied into making a quick decision.
“We always warn people: be aware of who you're hiring; ensure you get multiple estimates,” says Labine. “And look out for red flags like … why is that contract so much cheaper than others? Remember, if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.”
Finally, Labine recommends never opening the door to someone you don’t know.
“You're putting yourself at risk as soon as you open that door for anybody to walk into your house,” she says.
For Chapman, who worked her whole life and relies on a modest pension, the prospect of losing her home is so upsetting she’s now developed a stutter. While she waits to hear whether her case will move into a formal enforcement action with the Financial Services Regulatory Authority of Ontario, she hopes to alert other homeowners to be watch out for similar scams.
“It’s scary when you might lose your house. I have a friend who lives in an apartment who said, ‘Michelle … there’s nothing out there and you’re not going to find anything affordable,’” says Chapman.
“You should be able to have peace of mind at my age.”
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