COVID-19 used to scam Manitoba farming conference out of $200K

Organizers of a Manitoba farming conference were scammed out of nearly $200,000 in a “sophisticated fraud” that used COVID-19 as a ruse, a judge has ruled.

The case involves fake emails, the apparent sale of farmland in central Africa and what could be a completely fake lawyer.

CropConnect, a non-profit in Carman, Man., had to go to court to get its money back from a Quebec bank account, where it had been frozen.

The incident began when CropConnect held its annual farming conference in February 2020, according to the court decision.

CropConnect used a local event planning company to book Winnipeg’s Victoria Inn Hotel & Convention Centre.

A few months afterward, CropConnect authorized the event planner to write the hotel a cheque for $197,706.48.

But when the event planner contacted the Victoria Inn to pay the bill, they started to receive fake emails from a misspelled email address: “@vicnin.com.”

In the emails, the person pretending to work for Victoria Inn said because of COVID-19, the hotel had changed its billing process.

Instead of a cheque, the scammer directed the company to wire the money to a separate bank account, the court document stated.

The judge said it’s easy to see how the trick worked.

“CropConnect received cleverly disguised correspondence from the Victoria Inn which, in the circumstances, did not raise any red flags,” Justice Jeffrey Harris wrote in his Court of Queens Bench decision Dec. 21, 2020.

“In the spring of 2020, businesses were changing operational modes in response to COVID-19 and there was nothing about this change which would be expected to raise concerns or require follow-up,” Harris wrote.

Unaware it was a scam, the planning company forwarded the fake email to CropConnect, who wire transferred the money.

The CropConnect conference, seen here in a photo posted to the organization’s Twitter page, received cleverly disguised emails pretending to be both their party planner and the hotel they booked their event with. (CropConnect/Twitter)

For nearly a month, CropConnect then received a series of new fake emails, this time with the scammer pretending to be the party planner, explaining why the payment hadn’t gone through.

It wasn’t until May that the real party planner phoned CropConnect to tell them the hotel never got paid, and had never asked for a wire transfer.

Realizing they were the victim of the scam, CropConnect contacted the bank. Winnipeg Police and RCMP investigated.

The money was traced to a BMO bank account belonging to a numbered company in Quebec, where the cash was frozen before it was withdrawn.

The owner of that numbered company, Senso Kiakuama, said he was also a victim of fraud. The judge disagreed— and believes Kiakuama was actually part of the scam. 

Fraud used fake sale of land in Central Africa: judge

Kiakuama, who immigrated to Canada from the Democratic Republic of Congo, told the judge he was trying to sell a parcel of farmland back home.

Kiakuama paid his childhood friend named Roger Bongo to act as his lawyer in the DRC.

In January, Bongo found someone in Canada to buy the land for $180,000, plus fees, which brought the total to $197,706.48, the lawsuit said.

Kiakuama received a copy of the Deed of Sale, which he said he never read.

The one page document never mentioned the name of the man purchasing the farmland, but did name the CropConnect Conference.

That should have concerned Kiakuama, the judge wrote.

“But it did not. This is likely because Kiakuama was part of the fraud,” Harris said.

That spring, Bongo gave Kiakuama a receipt that showed money being transferred from a credit union in Carman, Man., to Kiakuama’s company account.

“Of course, this was the payment by CropConnect with respect to the Victoria Inn invoice,” the judge wrote.

CropConnect is a two-day conference in Winnipeg. The judge says CropConnect’s name showed up on the deed of sale and the wire transfer. That should have been a flag that something was wrong. (CropConnect/Twitter)

Not reading a $200K Deed of sale ‘defies logic’: judge

Kiakuama said it was “a complete shock” to discover CropConnect was mentioned in the Deed and the wire money transfer.

That doesn’t fly with the judge— who says that excuse “defies logic.”

“He is a businessman who is engaged in a transaction involving land worth CAD$180,000 in a country which he says is ‘very corrupt.’ I do not believe that he did not read that document,” Harris wrote.

After that, Bongo disappeared. Kiakuama could not provide the court with any written communication with Bongo, saying they used a messaging app that instantly deletes conversations.

Justice Harris said he believes that Kiakuama either deliberately deleted the messages, or perhaps that “Bongo does not exist.”

If he really was a victim of the scam too, Justice Harris said Kiakuama was in a much better position to stop it.

Justice Harris has ordered the bank and Kiakuama’s numbered company to return the funds to CropConnect back in full, along with costs.