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Who’s calling? Tips for avoiding phone scams

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If you think you are the victim of a fraud, contact your local police service immediately and report the incident to the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre (online or at 1‑888-495-8501).



Phone scams are more sophisticated than ever.

In 2018, CBC’s Marketplace exposed a large-scale call centre in India operating to bilk Canadians out of their money. The operation used robo-callers, with a message purporting to be from the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA). The message suggests that the recipient owes money to the Canadian government and may face jail-time should they fail to pay. It’s a tactic designed to frighten, and it works.

According to CTV, law enforcement has targeted an estimated 40 illegal call centres in India, and as of March 2019, arrested 60 people.

From 2013-2018, at least 60,000 Canadians reported being targeted by phone scams. These scams stole more than $10 million from Canadians during that period. Victims often report feeling foolish or embarrassed, so the figures may be underreported.

The elderly and new Canadians are typically seen as vulnerable to these scams; however, a US poll found that people aged 18-34, and especially men, are most susceptible to phone scams. And, as the scammers refine their art, anyone can fall prey to their tactics.

Phone scams are evolving

As public awareness of phone scams grows, scammers are increasingly “spoofing” legitimate phone numbers to overcome people’s suspicion. Caller ID spoofing is the ability of a caller to display false information on the receiver’s caller ID. As a result, a call from a scam artist may appear to be from Service Canada, a police department, Canada Revenue Agency, the parole board, a courthouse, etc.

How government phone scams work

I received a call this morning pretending to be from Service Canada. An automated voice warned of an “enforcement action which has been executed by the Department of Justice against [my] Social Insurance Number.” If I ignored the call, it warned, it would be treated as an “an intentional attempt to avoid” my initial court appearances.

I hung up. But many people don’t.

CBC reports that a young Vancouver woman was defrauded out of $6,000 last week due to a spoofing scam. The crime unfolded as follows:

  • The woman received a call purporting to be from the CRA. The message advised her that she owed money to the government – she owed a small amount of money, so it had an air of reality. The message advised her that, if she did not deal with the caller, it would be like not showing up to court.
  • The woman stayed on the line. A live agent picked up the call and gathered the woman’s personal information, under the guise of confirming her identity. The agent advised that the woman’s social insurance number was involved in a $3 million fraud, and asked whether the woman’s identity could have been stolen. The woman recalled that her laptop had been stolen – again, increasing the air of reality. The agent offered to help by calling the Vancouver police, and ended the call.
  • Minutes later, the woman received a call, which her caller ID indicated was from the Vancouver police. The caller advised the woman that a car and house registered in her name were subject to criminal investigations and that a warrant was out for her arrest charges of drug trafficking, money laundering and fraud.
  • The caller kept the woman on the phone and coached her to withdraw funds from her bank account on the basis that the account may soon be frozen, and deposit them at a bitcoin machine (describing it as a government wallet safe machine) to protect the funds.

It sounds far-fetched, but it worked. The calls were alarming. They played on the woman’s existing debt and lost laptop. And the follow-up call from the Vancouver police phone number seemed legitimate, enhancing the air of reality.

These calls are on the rise, and the reason they continue is because they work. They seem official, the messages are very menacing, and once a victim pays money by bitcoin, or gift card, it is virtually irrecoverable.

Importantly, call centres have access to millions of people. They ask if you might owe money. (There’s a good chance you do.) They ask if you could be the victim of identity theft. (Given the frequency of data breaches in the news, you may answer yes.) It is similar to a psychic asking if you have experienced loss, or if you are considering a change. If you ask enough people, some will say yes.

If you receive an alarming phone call, stay calm and hang up. Scammers want you to get flustered. They want to pressure you by making matters seem urgent. And they want to keep you on the line.

Tips for suspicious phone calls

  • As a general rule, avoid calls from blocked or unknown numbers. Let them go to voicemail. Make sure you have a password on your voicemail, or a caller may try to obtain personal information by listening to your messages.
  • Be suspicious if someone pressures you for money or personal information urgently. Be particularly suspicious if the caller uses threatening language.
  • If you suspect a scam, hang up. Do not press any buttons to speak to an operator. Phone scams often ask you to press a button to proceed. According to the FCC, this helps the scammers identify targets.
  • Hang up, look up the agency’s phone number, and call back that number.
    • The government or police will not call you to demand immediate payment of money. If you think there’s a chance that the government agency or police department is trying to reach you, find their number in the phone book or on their website and call them back on that number. You can contact Service Canada at Canada.ca or 1-800-O-Canada (1-800-622-6232).
    • Do not give out personal details to someone who calls you. Hang up. If the caller identifies as someone from a service provider or creditor of yours, review your bills or correspondence for their phone number and call that number.
  • The government will never ask you for payment in the form of bitcoin or prepaid gift cards (like iTunes or prepaid Visa cards). Scammers like these forms of payment because the money is often irrecoverable.
  • Avoid answering questions, particularly with a “Yes” or “No.” As the CBC has reported, some scammers will try to record you saying “Yes” (“Can you hear me?”), and use the recording as a voice signature to authorize transactions.

Messages from the CRA

In certain circumstances, the CRA does call individuals or businesses. For example, the CRA may call if you didn’t file your taxes, if you owe money, or if they are commencing an audit. In these situations, you are entitled to verify the CRA agent’s identity by asking for their name, phone number, and office location.

Usually, it’s a good idea to advise the caller that you will call the CRA back. Hang up, find the CRA’s true phone number on Canada.ca or on the CRA’s contact page, and call that number to find out if the CRA has tried to contact you.

The Government of Canada offers the following tips regarding communications with the CRA:

  • The CRA may contact you by mail, email or telephone. The CRA will never contact you by text message, iMessage, WhatsApp, or social media.
  • The CRA will never leave threatening voicemails.
  • On the phone, the CRA may ask for details to confirm your identity (such as your name or date of birth). It will never ask you for information about your passport, health card, or driver’s license. The CRA will never request your personal information by email.
  • The CRA will never threaten you with arrest or a prison sentence.
  • The CRA will never ask for immediate payment by e-transfer, bitcoin, or gift cards (e.g., iTunes, Amazon, prepaid Visa/MasterCard, etc.).