spam calls canada

Canadians are getting more spam calls and there's not much we can do about it

I got a missed call one afternoon and looking at the caller ID, I panicked.

It said, "Nunavut Court of Justice."

I live in Ontario, and haven’t left the province in months — but I was frightened in a way that bordered on paranoia. Could I have done something illegal in a province I had never been to? Was someone I know somehow jailed in Nunavut and I was the only one who could save them? Did someone steal my identity?

Perhaps this was the beginning of my real life true crime saga, something I would turn into a viral podcast.

I called the court back and asked what was happening. I was told that, of course, it was a scam. Calls were being routed through their number, and they had been getting asked about it all morning.

Of course, I knew the Nunavut Court of Justice wasn’t actually calling me— but what would have happened if I picked up?

I’d like to think that I am too smart to be fooled by a spam call, but had I picked up, how far could the call have gone?

For many, these calls do take a turn for the worst. At first blush, it’s easy to conclude those who are most susceptible to telephone scams are the elderly — but the scams are now so sophisticated, virtually anyone can fall for them.

Veronica, a 29 year old working in higher education and residing in Vancouver nearly fell victim to a scam three years ago. She got a spoof call claiming to be from the Canada Revenue Agency.

Caller ID spoofing, as defined by the CRTC, is when illegitimate telemarketers change their caller ID information to misrepresent themselves. The fines for spoofing can range anywhere from $1,500 to $15,000 depending on if it’s done by an individual or a corporation.

Important notice: Scammers have been spoofing the OPC’s telephone #, and are asking for Social Insurance Numbers and other personal info. Do not provide this sensitive information!

Already in a vulnerable position — that year Veronica found out she owed the CRA taxes — it was easy for her to believe she was speaking to a legitimate person.

But quickly, things escalated. “They told me they would come to my workplace and arrest me,” Veronica told me.

“The phone operator was super aggressive, and they told me that they were VPD [Vancouver Police Department) and they’d come and arrest me,” she said.

Since she already owed the CRA, being told she owed more seemed believable. They asked her to drive to a Shoppers Drug Mart to purchase gift cards — a common tactic to get quick cash.

After 45 minutes on the phone, she texted her partner about the situation; he told her to hang up. She did, and didn't buy the cards.

“I received the call during a really stressful time, when I was not really aware about any things in life including how taxes work," she said.

Mariam, a 20-year-old student, wasn’t as lucky as Veronica. Being relatively new to Canada, her family accountant handled her taxes, which is why hearing from what she thought was the CRA was extra frightening.

“[They said] you haven’t paid your taxes and are you aware there’s a warrant for your arrest?” Mariam explained. A man on the phone told her not to call anyone else. “The only way we can handle this is if you pay off some of it, but discreetly.”

She told him she was on the bus, and he told her to take an Uber so the situation could be handled as quickly as possible.

The fine he claimed she owed was $10,000. When she told him she didn’t have that kind of money, he told her to give them whatever she had.

Mariam was then instructed to go to a Canadian Tire and purchase two $100 Google Play gift cards and to stay on the phone. It was only after she had given him the codes on the back of the gift cards when she realized she was scammed.

I know how irritating spam calls can be, I've had them too. All carriers are working with the CRTC and industry partners to reduce spoofed calls and unwanted mass calling. You can learn more about the initiative here. ^ab

“Looking back, there were so many red flags it was a scam, but sadly in the moment I did not pick up on them," Mariam said, adding she did not go to the authorities because she felt too stupid, and all she had was a phone number as proof (they immediately blocked her).

For both Veronica, Miriam and others I spoke with — the common factor was that the scam felt real enough, mostly due to intimidation and manipulation.

And while it seems one would be naïve to fall for a spam call, especially when it is revealed to be a supposed government agent asking for a gift card, the people pressuring them on the phone are often trained to be assertive.

“What’s obvious for you or me might not be obvious for other people, there’s a scam for everybody.” said Jeff Thomson, Manager of Fraud Prevention at the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP),  who said many have fallen victim to these scams.

“They are very threatening and very authoritative, you can appreciate that some people might be in the wrong frame of mind when they get these alarming or threatening calls — they might just react," Thomson added, noting he has seen everyone fall for spam calls, from lawyers to doctors to students.

What are people supposed to do when they get the calls?

“It all starts with the local police to investigate,” Thomson said. “If somebody comes by and paints on your shed in your backyard, are the police going to investigate? Yes. So why is it any different when it’s a call?”

And if you feel like you’re getting these calls more frequently than you used to, you’re not going crazy. Thomson agreed, saying sometimes he gets up to four calls a day.

Only, once your money’s gone — it’s likely gone for good. “Generally, when money is sent — it’s gone within minutes,” Thomson said.

Since many of these calls come from outside of Canada or are done over VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol), it’s sometimes impossible to persecute people once a report is sent to either local or federal authorities.

So, what are telecom companies doing about it? According to Patricia Valladao, a spokesperson for the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), it’s tricky.

“People register their phone numbers on the national do-not-call list which can reduce the amounts of unwanted calls,” Valladao said. Only, that works for legitimate entities, and doesn’t really work for illegitimate spam calls.

“There is a challenge,” Valladao admitted, when it comes to finding solutions because so many of these calls are outside of Canada’s jurisdiction. Some phone companies like Telus have found ways to identify badly formed numbers and have methods to stop them.

Two calls in just a few hours on my cellphone from "Service Canada" threatening me with arrest. This spam stuff is a pox. People who distrust/fear government are particularly at risk. Poser: which political party likes to undermine confidence in government? #cdnpoli

What is clear is that authorities and regulatory bodies can’t keep up with scams, or even agree on how to tackle the issue.

In the first seven months of 2019, the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre received over 20,000 reports of scams amounting to over $43 million in losses.

And with millions of Canadians having their data breached through information given to major corporations (Air Canada, HondaBell Canada, and so on), it’s impossible to know who has your personal information.

If you’re wondering whether or not you’ll stop getting multiple calls a day telling you you’re going to jail or that you've won a free suite at the Marriott, it doesn't seem like the frequency of these calls will slow down any time soon. And the only way to avoid getting scammed is to know exactly how to avoid being scammed.

The CRTC provides information on how to not fall for the scams on their website, including lists of scams and ways to reduce unwanted calls.

The RCMP provides instructions on what to do if you fall victim to the scams themselves. But when the onus is put on Canadians to find the correct information and protect themselves, it doesn’t seem like much of a solution at all.

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