Midway through our telephone interview about robocalls, Jeff Thomson, a senior RCMP intelligence analyst with the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre, asks me to hang on a second.
“I think I’m getting a spam call right now,” Thomson says.
He puts his phone on speaker so I could hear too. It was an automated message from a hotel chain offering Thomson a complimentary stay.
That’s just one example of how frequent scam calls have become. More recently, Canadians across the country have been experiencing an influx of scam or robocalls claiming to be from organizations such as the Canada Revenue Agency or Service Canada.
There’s usually a threatening voice on the other end of a scam call, saying you could be arrested or face a lawsuit if you don’t provide your personal information.
Thomson, who has worked in law enforcement for over 20 years, provides insight into why there’s been an influx of scam calls, the red flags to watch for, and if there’s anything Canadians can do to protect themselves against scammers.
Why do scammers use the phone method?
Thomson: Telephone remains one of the best marketing tools available. Lower cost of voice over internet protocol (VoIP) technologies have provided opportunities for offshore fraudsters to reach victims around the world.
Why are we seeing an influx of scam calls?
Thomson: It ties to the above, but essentially these scams come in waves. There are certain times of year that we see spikes in calls for no rhythm or reason.
It’s a game of numbers, the more people you contact the more likely you are to find a victim.
With email phishing scams, especially tax-related email scams, we’ll see a spike near tax season so end of February, beginning of March, and again in December and January.
What you mean “these scams come in waves”?
Thomson: From 2014 to 2016, we saw a gradual increase in the Canada Revenue Agency telephone scam. But in 2016, there were arrests made in India linked to that and then we saw the calls decrease. Fraudsters go into hiding, change their tactics and their location to help avoid detection from law enforcement.
From 2017 until now, we’ve seen an increase. With the recent arrest in India, maybe we’ll see a decrease in calls again.
It’s hard to say if it’s a pattern. But if a scam is lucrative, it’s not going to go away.
Aside from not picking up our phones or giving our information way, how can Canadians protect themselves?
Thomson: Recognize, reject, report.
Recognize that scammers are using the telephone, the internet, text messaging and email to try and scam people. Beware of any urgent request for personal information or money.
No government agency or legitimate institutions will call you to demand or coerce or extort you into action. Nor will any legitimate institution or government agency request payment via bitcoin.
What are some red flags people should be aware of in a telephone or email scam?
Thomson: With email scams, the emails are designed to look like your bank, travel agency, or eBay or Amazon website, it can be any website where you may have an account.
Let’s say it’s a travel agency and they’re targeting Canadian snowbirds going to Florida in the middle of winter, the idea here is that they’re going to make something that looks like your flight itinerary and get you to click on the link. Then it turns out to be an email designed to install malware on your computer or harvest your personal information.
With telephone calls, remember, no call from government agency or legitimate institution will be alarming or threatening in nature. They won’t ask you to buy gift cards or bitcoins or ask for your personal information. Those are all red flags.
Sometimes a scam call will end up being from an area code I recognize. At the very basic level, what can people do if they don’t trust their caller ID?
Thomson: You have a choice to make, you either answer that call or don’t. At first, caller ID was created as a convenience for individuals to ignore calls from people they didn’t want to talk to. In today’s world, you can’t trust it.
Is there anything phone providers could do to help consumers block these calls?
Thomson: If the average number of calls a day is something like 500, but then you see 2,500 calls the next day, as a phone company, is that not a red flag?
Now that’s just the tip of the iceberg because we know there’s legitimate telemarketing so how do you distinguish the bad traffic from good traffic?
The CRTC has given a deadline of Dec. 19 to telecom companies to have some form of call-blocking system in place to prevent scam phone calls from getting through to consumers.
Thomson: Yes, there’s different processes and algorithms they can run. But the telecom companies rely on people programming numbers in to be blocked. But if that number on your call display is not the actual number that’s calling you, then what?
I’m hopeful for what they will come up with, but I know there’s going to be bumps in the road going forward.
Is it hard to track the scammers down?
Thomson: Technology such as caller ID spoofing apps and services make it more difficult to trace the calls and the internet provides services that allow the fraudsters to remain anonymous.
Scams are also international in scope thus law enforcement need to rely on international protocols and processes to seek assistance from foreign police services. This being said investigations are still possible, but can take more time and resources.
Investigating is just one way to reduce fraud. Education and prevention is key. We want to make Canada and Canadians the most educated country when it comes to fraud.
On that note, do you have anything else to say to Canadians about scam calls?
Thomson: Talk to friends and family if you get these calls so you’re helping educate and spread awareness. Take a moment to step back and ask: Is this normal? Is this typical?
Don’t react to any calls you get that are creating a sense of urgency or panic or alarm.