Nearly $200,000 in scammed funds returned to CropConnect Conference

The CropConnect Conference has received its money back after being scammed of nearly $200 thousand in a case involving fake emails purporting to be from the hotel in Winnipeg where the annual farm conference has been held, a numbered company based in Quebec, and an apparent farmland deal in Africa.

Forged emails resulted in CropConnect and its event planner sending a payment of $197,706.48 to a fraudster posing as the Victoria Inn Hotel & Convention Centre in April of 2020, following the conference held in Winnipeg last February, according to documents posted by Manitoba’s Court of Queen’s Bench (you can read them here). The CBC first reported this story on February 3.

The fake emails, which featured Victoria Inn letterhead, told the event planner hired by CropConnect that the hotel had changed its “mode of operation with respect to accounts receivable” due to changing COVID protocols, and that payment was to be sent to a numbered company with an address in Montreal, Quebec and a bank account with BMO. At the same time, the Victoria Inn received a series of e-mails purporting to be from the CropConnect event planner explaining why there was a delay in the payment.

After finding out the hotel had not received the money in May, the court documents say CropConnect organizers contacted the Winnipeg Police and RCMP, and both opened investigation files.

The $197,706.48 was traced to an RBC account, where it was frozen and returned to BMO, but BMO advised it needed a court order to transfer the money back to CropConnect, as the sole shareholder in the numbered company that received the funds claimed they were the proceeds of a legitimate transaction.

Senso Kiakuama told the court he moved to Canada from the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1991, and he believed he had received the money for the sale of a parcel of farmland that he owned in the DRC. He argued he had also been a victim of fraud.

In his ruling issued December 21, 2020, Justice Jeffrey Harris said he did not believe several aspects of Kiakuama’s affidavit, and that CropConnect was entitled to immediate payment of the whole amount.

“For its part, CropConnect received cleverly disguised correspondence from the Victoria Inn which, in the circumstances, did not raise any red flags. I take judicial notice of the fact that 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,” wrote Harris.

CropConnect has received the money and officially paid the Victoria Inn & Convention Centre, but is not commenting any further as there is still an open RCMP investigation.

The 2021 edition of CropConnect, normally held in mid-February, has been cancelled due to COVID-19.

The commodity groups involved in organizing the conference — the Manitoba Canola Growers, Manitoba Crop Alliance, Manitoba Oats Growers, Manitoba Pulse & Soybean Growers and Manitoba Seed Growers — will be holding their annual general meetings virtually on February 10 and February 11. February 3 is the last day to register for these AGMs.

Next year’s CropConnect Conference is scheduled for February 15 and 16, 2022.

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