'They just disappeared': Canadians ripped off by online lender say no one is looking out for them
People who alleged they were defrauded by North Clear Credit, a ‘company’ that bills itself as ‘nationwide lending specialists,’ say the police and the government can't help them get their money back.
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Saddled with crushing credit card debt, car payments and a student loan, Alexandra Johnston and Robert Mood were desperate.
It was late 2017 and the Bradford couple was hoping to secure a line of credit so they could consolidate their debts and give the kids a decent Christmas.
Unable to qualify for a loan from her bank, Johnston searched online for private lenders and found a website for what appeared to be a legitimate company calling itself North Clear Credit.
“We’re here to help you get the best loan for you! Never pay high interest rates again — our rate freeze guarantee means we offer the most competitive rates on the market,” the website proclaimed.
Everything about it — the variety of loans offered, the glowing testimonials, the company description — seemed professional. In fact, a customer who later reported North Clear Credit to police says an officer told her the website looked legitimate.
For Johnston and Mood, the terms were appealing. The money could be paid back monthly over five years at an interest rate substantially lower than what they would be charged elsewhere.
Johnston completed an online application and was approved for a $20,000 loan.
“Nothing seemed off to me,” said Johnston, 25. “I thought it looked real.”
So did at least three others in Ontario and the Northwest Territories who were impressed by the website of the “nationwide lending specialists.”
North Clear Credit turned out to be anything but.
Within a few days, Johnston and Mood had lost $3,500, and two North Clear Credit “representatives” with whom Johnston had been corresponding had disappeared.
“The impact this had was just terrible, especially at that time of year,” said Mood, 34, who has a 3-year-old daughter with Johnston and three other children from previous relationships. “I had to go to a hamper drive to get Christmas presents for my kids. I’ve never had to do that.”
The Star could find neither employees nor offices for North Clear Credit.
According to its website, which was active as of late last week but now appears to have been taken down, the company is headquartered in Dorval, Quebec. The Star went to the address — a low-rise glass-fronted building in an industrial area of Montreal Island — but found no trace of the company. Would-be borrowers were provided with a Montreal-area phone number that leads to a computerized voicemail. None of the Star’s calls or emails were returned.
Quebec’s consumer protection office, a provincial agency that enforces consumer protection laws, said it had never heard of North Clear Credit. A search of corporate registries revealed no such company in any jurisdiction in Canada.
A domain search for the company’s website, creditnorthclear.com, revealed no details about who is behind the site.
Here’s what victims say happens:
Would-be borrowers complete an online form that asks for their name, address, phone number, date of birth, annual salary and the kind of loan they are looking for: personal, business or “debt consolidation.”
Within a few days, applicants receive an email or a call from a “Natalie Anderson” claiming to be a “lending specialist” from North Clear Credit. She tells them the loan has been approved and there are three options to “secure” the money: a co-signor, collateral or a security deposit. “Anderson” encourages the applicant to make a security deposit, equal to 10 per cent of the loan amount, and attaches a contract for that option to her email.
“She seemed very nice on the phone, soft-spoken and very mature,” said Brampton resident Kim Mellan, who lost $1,000. “This wasn’t a 20-year-old.”
The contract specifies an attractive interest rate of 10.5 per cent per year, which is a much lower rate than what well-known installment lenders typically charge. The document includes a 60-month repayment schedule and states that the security deposit will be held in trust for six months and then deducted from the principal of the loan or refunded if all loan terms are met.
The applicant is asked to sign and return the contract along with a copy of their photo ID, proof of income (either a pay stub or bank statement), a piece of mail and a void cheque or direct-deposit form.
The email states that the applicant can send the deposit via an online bill payment or an Interac e-transfer.
Once the would-be borrower returns the contract and pays the deposit, one of two things happen: “Anderson” is never heard from again and no loan is ever advanced, or “Mary Lewis,” another representative from North Clear Credit, gets in touch to say “Anderson” is “away sick.”
“Lewis” says insurance must be added to the loan before it is released “as you are considered high risk.” Another contract is provided asking for an insurance payment, about $1,500.
Once the applicant sends the “insurance” money, all communication from “Lewis” ceases.
In most jurisdictions, including Ontario, it’s illegal for a loan company to ask for an upfront payment before advancing any money.
“It’s very sophisticated. They didn’t just pull stuff off the internet and send it to people. They did their research,” said Mood, who reported the experience to several police forces but got no relief.
He also vented online and soon heard from others saying that North Clear Credit had ripped them off too.
All of the victims shared nearly identical experiences. And as soon as the would-be borrowers realized they had lost their money, the “lenders” were suddenly unreachable.
“They just disappeared,” said Suzanne Ngo Likaa, a Yellowknife resident who says she lost $3,500 to North Clear Credit last year. “They just didn’t answer. I wrote them tons of emails, but they wouldn’t respond.”
These four victims all voiced similar concerns: What happens when someone hiding behind a legitimate-looking company dressed up as a lender takes your money and disappears? Who will get the money back for you?
So far, the answer seems to be nobody: not the police, not the government, and certainly not the company. In Canada, victims of financial scams seem to have no one looking out for them.
A federal government agency called the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre collects and shares information on mass marketing fraud and identity theft with law enforcement, but does not have the resources to investigate companies, according to a spokesperson.
The Ontario Ministry of Government and Consumer Services, which is responsible for the province’s Consumer Protection Act, requires consumers to file a complaint and submit supporting documentation before deciding if consumers’ rights were violated.
Two victims of North Clear Credit said their banks covered some of the lost money, but others were told they were out of luck.
Mood and Johnston made a report to the South Simcoe police, but aren’t satisfied with how their concerns were handled.
“It really burns me still,” said Mood, who has taken a job in Fort McMurray for several months in an effort to clear his debts. “As far as I’m concerned, that’s their job to follow up on that.”
A South Simcoe police spokesperson, Sgt. Todd Ferrier, said the case has been turned over to the force’s criminal investigations bureau and would probably be passed onto the internet crimes officer.
“As a guess on this, really nothing more than that, I wouldn’t be surprised if this company isn’t even in Canada,” Ferrier said.
The Star called three other police forces that received complaints. It does not appear any have visited the office in person and it is not clear what efforts have been made to find “Anderson” or “Lewis.”
Ngo Likaa, a project manager with the government of the Northwest Territories, was looking for a $20,000 loan last December to help her mother pay for a master’s degree in international relations in Australia. Ngo Likaa, 35, started looking for lenders online after her bank, RBC, refused to lend her the money.
After she applied to North Clear Credit, she too received an email asking for a $2,000 security deposit followed by a request for insurance of $1,501.74.
Ngo Likaa sent both payments. Her loan never showed up, and Ngo Likaa never heard from North Clear Credit again.
“They just sounded so legit,” Ngo Likaa said. “It’s just a sad situation. It’s money that would have helped a lot.”
She reported her experience to her local RCMP detachment. An RCMP spokesperson told the Star the case is “open and ongoing, which prevents us from discussing in detail.”
Ngo Likaa turned to her bank, but says she was told that because she paid through Interac, which is an independent, third-party provider, she couldn’t get her money back.
Jill Anzarut, an RBC spokesperson, said each instance of potential fraud or unauthorized transactions is reviewed on a “case-by-case basis.”
“In all instances, we work with the client throughout the process and keep them informed,” Anzarut wrote in an email.
Ngo Likaa went to Interac, reasoning that if North Clear Credit accepts e-transfers, then whoever is behind it must have a Canadian bank account. She says Interac told her there was nothing it could do.
An Interac spokesperson, Sandra DeCarvalho, said that although the company couldn’t comment on investigations, “we can assure you that Interac works closely with our stakeholders, including financial institutions and payment service providers, as well as law enforcement to assist as much as possible in investigations.”
Brampton resident Kim Mellan applied for a $10,000 loan just before Christmas. She was hoping to surprise her husband with a used motor home for the couple’s 29th wedding anniversary. “We’ve been wanting one forever,” said Mellan, 58.
After applying to North Clear Credit, she too was prompted to pay a security deposit and insurance. Unable to come up with money for the insurance, Mellan asked for a refund. That was when all communication stopped and no loan came through.
“Never thought in my life I was going to get ripped off. I’m very cautious usually,” said Mellan, who suffers from osteoporosis and is on disability. “How dare they do this to people. They should be stopped.”
Mellan went to her local Peel Regional Police division to report the crime, but says she was told she couldn’t file a report.
“The officer I spoke to looked them up on the internet and said, ‘Well, it looks like a legitimate company, so you’re going to have to go to civil court to get your money back,’ ” she recalled.
Peel Regional Police spokesperson Const. Bally Saini told the Star what probably happened was that the officer who met with Mellan may have believed the company was legitimate because there was a contract involved.
Saini said the force’s fraud department has not received any complaints about North Clear Credit, but encouraged Mellan to make a report with a fraud detective.
With files from Allan Woods
Kenyon Wallace can be reached at 416-869-4734 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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