The organizers of one of the last big Prairie farm events held before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic have recovered funds temporarily lost to an alleged phishing scam.
The CropConnect Conference — an annual crop production and farm management conference co-organized by Manitoba grain, oilseed and pulse grower groups — has received back almost $198,000 after securing a court order in December to unfreeze the funds from a bank account registered to a Montreal business.
The money — which was intended to be paid to the 2020 conference’s host venue, the Victoria Inn in Winnipeg — has since been returned to the conference’s account and officially used to pay the hotel, Pam de Rocquigny, CEO for the Manitoba Crop Alliance, said via email Wednesday.
In a Dec. 21, 2020 ruling, first reported Wednesday by CBC, Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench Justice Jeffrey Harris ordered the money to be returned to CropConnect — the not-for-profit body that runs the event on behalf of the Manitoba Crop Alliance, Manitoba Canola Growers, Manitoba Oat Growers Association, Manitoba Pulse and Soybean Growers and Manitoba Seed Growers Association.
The crop groups, whose annual general meetings for 2021 will instead be held virtually Feb. 10-11 due to the pandemic, had held the conference and their respective AGMs for 2020 at the Victoria Inn on Feb. 13-14.
As explained in Harris’ ruling, the hotel, on or around Feb. 20, sent an invoice to the CropConnect organizers for $197,706.48 for the costs of the event’s conference rooms, guest rooms, food and beverage services and other related services.
On April 8, CropConnect organizers approved the invoice for payment, as arranged by their contracted event planner. However, on April 15, the planner received an email, “ostensibly” from the hotel, claiming the Victoria Inn had changed its “mode of operation with respect to accounts receivable” and asking that the money instead be sent by wire transfer to a BMO account.
The email included an attachment on Victoria Inn letterhead laying out the wire transfer details and listing the “beneficiary name” for the BMO account as a numbered Montreal company. The planner forwarded that email to CropConnect organizers, who arranged for the transfer to BMO.
The email, Harris wrote in his ruling, “was in fact the product of a fraudster.” The practice of sending emails disguised as correspondence from legitimate companies, usually with the goal of stealing the recipient’s confidential financial information, is the form of fraud known as phishing.
According to Harris, the phishing continued April 23 when CropConnect received a copy of an email, again claiming to be from their contact at the Victoria Inn, seeking further help with the wire transfer. In that message, the email address for the contact at the Victoria Inn ended in “@vicnin.com” rather than “@vicinn.com.”
Meanwhile, between April 17 and May 6, the real Victoria Inn was receiving emails, purporting to be from the event planner, attempting to explain the delay in payment.
On May 6, the real planner contacted CropConnect after learning that the real Victoria Inn had not been paid and had “at no time” asked for payment by wire transfer.
CropConnect staff then contacted their credit union to see if the transfer could be recalled. Winnipeg police and RCMP opened files on the case and the money was tracked to an RBC personal account, into which it had been transferred from the BMO account.
The money was frozen at RBC and later returned to BMO, which said it would need a court order to return the money to CropConnect. Since then, the money has been held by court order.
The numbered Montreal company — whose sole shareholder is a Congolese-born Canadian resident named Senso Kiakuama — had claimed to BMO that the money was for a legitimate $180,000 transaction involving a parcel of farmland Kiakuama owned in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Harris wrote.
Kiakuama, in a deposition Harris cited in his ruling, claimed that a lawyer friend of his had organized the land deal and, as proof of payment, provided a copy of the wire transfer document showing CropConnect had paid the money to Kiakuama’s company account at BMO.
Kiakuama then transferred the money to his personal account at RBC, where he said he was told the funds were subject to a four-day hold. A few days later he learned the funds had been frozen under a Manitoba court order and returned to BMO.
In his deposition, he showed a one-page deed of sale in which the buyer of the land was listed as the CropConnect Conference, and said he assumed the extra $17,706.48 was related to the cost of doing business via corrupt officials in the DRC.
Harris, in his ruling, rejected Kiakuama’s claims. “I am satisfied, based on the evidence before me, that Kiakuama and (numbered company) 9392 were part of the fraud and therefore, 9392 has no right to the monies held by this court,” he wrote.
Of Kiakuama’s claim that he too is a victim of fraud, Harris wrote that if that’s the case, the documents provided should have raised enough red flags for Kiakuama to detect and prevent it.
Meanwhile, the “cleverly disguised” correspondence claiming to be from the Victoria Inn would not have raised any red flags for CropConnect organizers under the circumstances, Harris wrote, noting that in the spring of 2020, many businesses were in fact “changing operational modes” due to COVID-19.
MCA’s de Rocquigny said Wednesday the alleged phishing itself remains an open case in which CropConnect is still working with the RCMP. Therefore, she said, organizers will not provide further detail beyond what’s laid out in Harris’ ruling.
— Includes files from Allan Dawson of the Manitoba Co-operator.