“Who would fall for that?”: The Alarming Truth Behind those Pesky Scam Phone Calls

by Kayla Daneal from Policy Innovation Initiative (Pii)

“Another one of those annoying scams,” my mom says nonchalantly as she hangs up the phone. “Apparently they’re from the Canada Revenue Agency, and if I don’t send them the money that I supposedly owe, then I’ll go to jail,” she continues. “Who would fall for that?” Much like my mom, I’m sure many frustrated Canadians have asked themselves this same question after dealing with such phone calls. Unfortunately, there is an answer – one that may come as a surprise to some. These extortion scams disproportionately affect immigrants and newcomers to the country who are unaware of the Canadian government’s policies regarding the ways in which the government, banks and companies may handle business matters or collect money from residents. Most of these newcomers are not yet economically stable. They lose a significant amount of money as a result of the scams and are left feeling hopeless, stressed and defeated. One newly arrived permanent resident says she fell victim to a convincing scammer over the phone who had her so flustered, she had given up her SIN before even realizing she was being scammed.

The scammers often pose as various Canadian agencies, and claim that the person’s identity has been comprised, and that they must pay thousands of dollars or face arrest and deportation. The phone numbers used by scammers are often connected to courthouses or government officials – a technique known as ‘caller ID spoofing’ – which renders the calls more believable. 

The Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre offers advice on its website on how Canadians can protect themselves against phone scams. Some of the tips include not giving out personal information over the phone, being aware that scammers can disguise their phone numbers, and remembering that calls demanding urgent payment are likely not legitimate. The Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) website provides people with information regarding the ways that Canadian companies and the government do business, and warns newcomers about the kinds of fraud they should watch out for. The website also tells people how to protect themselves against these forms of fraud, and the steps they should take if they fall victim to a scam. This information is available in English, Arabic and French. Additionally, the IRCC currently provides all new immigrants with a ‘Welcome to Canada’ booklet, which includes a small section on preventing fraud.

Be that as it may, most of this information is arguably vague and does not go into adequate detail. What’s more, policies that only allow for the dissemination of information via the Internet risk failing to reach certain populations, such as those who do not have access to the Internet or the elderly who may not be technologically adept. Limiting the information to English, Arabic or French also risks failing to inform those who do not understand these languages. 

In October 2018, the Greater Toronto Area Financial Crime section of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) launched Project Octavia, which focuses on telephone tax scams in Toronto. To date, three people have been charged in connection to multiple transnational scams. As encouraging as this may sound, efforts such as this, which focus on investigating crimes of fraud rather than preventing them before they occur, risk facing higher costs associated with investigative measures.

The bottom line here is that Canada needs to develop and implement a plan to limit the number of newcomers who fall victim to extortion phone scams. The goal should be to educate newcomers on how to avoid extortion scams, so as to reduce the financial burden on both these newcomers and the federal government. 

First and foremost, Canada can look to other jurisdictions for inspiration and guidance. The United States government and the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) include a section on Common Scams and Safety on each of their websites. These websites also include a section for reporting crimes of fraud, and allow for people to submit anonymous tips online to the FBI, which is best practice for ensuring that people don’t feel scared or intimidated by the authorities when reporting their incidents. Canadian police forces would need to expand their capacities to ensure that they can appropriately deal with anonymous online tips, and would need to ensure that they have the required budget and resources, which includes properly trained officers. They should also consider going beyond the online realm, since we cannot assume that everyone can access or navigate the Internet, and perhaps add a hotline to allow for people to phone-in anonymously, with translators at hand if need be. 

Ultimately, I recommend creating a government-issued fraud information booklet to be distributed to all Canadian newcomers upon entrance into the country. This would accompany the existing ‘Welcome to Canada’ booklet, and would include detailed information regarding national extortion scams. This booklet would serve as a guide to navigating the ways in which Canadian governments, banks and companies do business, and would include an extensive list of tips and warnings regarding potential scams, such as how to recognize a scam and how to protect yourself from fraud. It would also include a section on what to do if you suspect fraud or have fallen victim to an extortion scam, such as where to report the crime (with the option of remaining anonymous), what to do next, and the services you can seek for advice. This booklet would be available in all languages, making the information easily accessible, and would be transcribed into audio recordings in each language for those who are visually impaired. 

This option would be relatively inexpensive, as the government would likely only need to provide a lump sum of funding for the creation and translation of the information booklets and audio recordings. Should the booklet need to be updated, the government will need to allocate a suitable portion of the budget. It would also effectively reduce the high costs associated with investigating crimes of fraud by acting as a preventative measure. That said, a large incentive exists in creating this booklet – for both the government and newcomers – in that it would essentially act as a massive money-saver in the long run. 

So while these fraudulent phone calls may not be more than a waste of 20 short seconds for some, for others they can be the catalyst to a period of hardship and stress. Rather than asking yourselves, “Who would fall for that?”, consider asking instead, “What is the government doing to prevent people from falling for that?” 

Kayla Daneal is currently in her first year of the Master of Public Policy program at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy. She recently graduated from the University of Toronto with an Honours Bachelor of Arts in International Development, and had previously obtained an Honours Bachelor of Science in Neuroscience and French Language Studies. Her policy interests include immigration, sustainable development and global social policy.

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