VANCOUVER -- Seniors could be victimized twice and out thousands of dollars after being signed up by a stranger for a government benefit they aren't eligible to receive. They will likely have to pay it back, and be out the hundreds of dollars in surcharges they were convinced to pay.

Nearly 80 seniors in one Vancouver building have become the target of a scheme to take advantage of the Canada Emergency Response Benefit, a local politician says.

MLA Mable Elmore says a number of seniors contacted her office on Tuesday, concerned about a woman named Joanne who told them she could help them get a benefit from the government, in exchange for a cut of the money. 

Elmore says Joanne, and another person working with her, somehow contacted at least 77 seniors in the Columbus Tower Seniors Residence on Joyce Street, told them there was a benefit available, and offered to sign them up for a 10 per cent cut of the money they received from the government.   

"They told us they were going out today to go to the bank to get the money to pay her, and she was coming to the building to pick it up," Elmore told CTV News Vancouver, adding most didn't seem to know the money was the CERB, or that they likely didn't qualify to receive it. 

That means they could be on the hook when the government asks for that money back. 

Elmore says residents in another seniors housing complex, Grandview Towers on E 3rd Street in Vancouver, were also approached.  Don Davies, MP for Vancouver Kingsway, says the person doing this could be in a lot of trouble.  

"At the very best they are committing an immoral and unethical act by taking advantage of vulnerable seniors, and at worst - this is illegal," he says. "What these people are doing to the seniors is they are convincing them that they are entitled to a benefit that they are not entitled to."

The benefit provides up to $2,000 a month for those who have lost their job during the pandemic or can't work because they have to take care of someone who is sick. Seniors who had been working could qualify but apparently that wasn't the case with most of the most of the retired seniors who were targetted.

Victoria, who doesn't want to share her last name, got in touch with McLaughlin On Your Side after something similar happened to her elderly mother last week. She found information about getting a benefit from a Craigslist ad. 

"A friend of my mom's shared this information about Craigslist, about the money available for senior citizens," Victoria says. "She's 88 years old, she's not technically savvy. She went ahead and called the phone number and got hold of this woman named Joanne, who immediately asked my mom for her full name, her address, her date of birth and her SIN number. She told my mom she's eligible for the funds, that she would receive the funds in three days." 

Joanne said that after Victoria's mother received the funds, she should call back to arrange for someone to come to the house and pick up the $400 fee for getting her the money. 

Victoria says her mom did start to get suspicious and tried to cancel the transaction. But "Joanne" said it was too late, and $4,000 in CERB funds showed up in her mom's account two days later. 

"We know my mom does not qualify for this," she says, adding she was concerned about potential other victims, but shocked to hear so many others had been taken in. 

"Senior citizens don't know any better, they think it's free money," she says. 

Mable Elmore says most of the residents in the Joyce Street building didn't know the money they were getting was the CERB, or that what the woman was doing was wrong – they thought she was trying to help them. 

That's what happened to Carina Alamil, who lives at Columbus. 

"She told me two or three days, I get the $6,000," Alamil says. She gave Joanne her SIN number. "I saw her yesterday and she told me I'm approved." 

Elmore says the scheme seems to have spread by word of mouth.

"Once they received the money, then they told others," she says, adding the woman encouraged seniors to refer others who wanted help getting the benefit. 

"A number have received the money in their bank account, and some people have paid already and as the money comes in, then more people are meeting up with her and she collects the money in cash," Elmore says. 

So how did the mysterious Joanne sign seniors up for a benefit they were not eligible to receive? When McLaughlin On Your Side called her at the phone number in her Craigslist ad, she said she had a special number to call at the CRA. 

"I have a number that I call for it," she said. We asked if she's an accountant, and she said no. And she said that she runs the "God and Jesus Income Program... I'm a business person, I help people." She offered to help us get the money too, if we gave her our social insurance number, full name and date of birth. We declined.

The Canada Revenue Agency has an automated toll-free line you can call to sign up for the CERB if you can't apply online. On the CRA site, it says all you need to do is call in with your SIN and postal code, and follow the prompts to declare you qualify for the benefit. 

The government has said that if someone is given the CERB in error, the process will work just like when you pay taxes – you'll be reassessed at a later date and notified that you owe money. 

Victoria and her family were able to give the money back to the government, and she says the process was fairly straightforward. But she's worried other seniors will be taken advantage of, and may not know the government will want that money back. 

“To me that is fraud. It is counselling someone to commit a fraud and I believe that this is illegal and the police should be involved in this,” said Davies.

Elmore says the Vancouver Police Department is aware of the situation, and is looking into it.

Davies is planning to take the matter to Ottawa to try make it illegal to charge people fees to obtain COVID-19 benefits like the CERB. 

"Because if there isn't a clear prohibition against charging people to access this benefit, there ought to be. And I think we should call for that immediately." 

On Thursday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau addressed concerns about possible fraudulent activity involving CERB benefits.

"We have put in strong measures to ensure that anyone who is trying to defraud the system will get caught and there will be consequences. But that was not our priority, our priority was helping people immediatley and the fraud measures will kick-in in the coming months," he said.