Joanna Cicino’s baby was just five months old when she got a robo-call from someone who said he was officer Craig Williams from the Canada Revenue Agency.
“He was very aggressive,” she says, adding that her cellphone log showed the toll-free, 844 number was from Vietnam. “He was making it seem like I was in trouble and if I didn’t take any action, I would be in more trouble.”
The automated call referred to a problem with her maternity leave and employment insurance, which she thought was “a little off” since she had filed all the paperwork months ago and was already receiving benefits. Still, there was a niggling doubt. As a permanent resident who has lived in Canada just three years, she wondered if she had overlooked some important detail. She Googled the number first, and that’s when the first red flag went up. It definitely was not a CRA number. Then she called.
“First of all, I’m calling the CRA and somebody picks up the phone right away? Let’s be serious,” she says. “The CRA doesn’t just pick up the phone.”
The man asked for her name, but Cicino didn’t give it out. He said he needed more information; she asked him what CRA department he worked for. The impostor hung up.
What upset her most was how he knew she was a new mom and had applied for, and received, employment insurance for her mat leave. “I didn’t understand how he could target me.”
Cicino examined her privacy settings on social media and took down some pictures of her son on Facebook, but has since put them back up. “I don’t feel like this guy has any information from me at all. I’m very smart about my banking, nobody has any of my information.”
Since she’s originally from New Jersey, there were a few other warning signs the former U.S. resident missed. First of all, the scammer used the U.S. term “attorney” instead of lawyer. Secondly, “officer” is mainly used by police and members of the armed forces. And third, unemployment insurance claims are overseen by Employment and Social Development Canada, a completely different federal department than National Revenue.
The Canada Revenue Agency’s name has been invoked in scams too numerous to count. The most common is an extortion scheme, where scammers send out threatening calls, emails or texts saying an audit has uncovered mistakes in returns and they owe a bogus debt. If they don’t pay up, they could face arrest and even deportation.
They scare people into paying them by e-transfer, prepaid credit card or even, in a recent Toronto case, $25,000 in iTunes cards. The CRA issued its first alert about a phishing scam, where emails or texts try to dig out personal information, back in 2011, but recent complaints to the RCMP have thieves doubling back to previous victims and trying to scam them again with a fraud refund scheme.
At the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre in North Bay, Ont., where they track mass-marketing fraud, identity fraud and identity theft, 2016 statistics show more than 80,000 complaints of mass-marketing scams from 30,000 victims with total financial losses tallied at almost $100-million.
The centre logged 26,500 cases of identity fraud, where crooks impersonated living or dead people to scam banks, stores or other service providers, for total a financial loss of almost $14-million. It’s harder to calculate the losses from identity theft, where someone’s personal information is stolen for criminal purposes, but the centre did get more than 10,000 complaints last year.
The first sign that Scott Nicholson’s identity had been stolen was a call from Visa asking him if he had moved from St. Stephen, N.B., to Mississauga, Ont. Someone had used a Visa card in his name to buy small things at a drug store in the city east of Toronto. Soon after, he discovered $4,000 had been direct deposited into his bank account.
The bank said it was a tax refund from the CRA, but he hadn’t filed his return yet. The Visa card and the fake tax return were tied together after the CRA confirmed the return address was in Mississauga.
Nicholson, a financial adviser at the time, changed his Social Insurance Number. About four months after the money showed up in his account, he got a call from a Toronto detective.
“They had arrested a guy and in his wallet was a piece of ID that had all my information, except his picture on it,” says Nicholson.
That was 12 years ago, and the effects linger. “You really feel like, as much as companies that you deal with try really hard, they’re really behind the eight ball.” To this day, he has no idea how the thief got his personal information. For five years he had an alert on his credit rating, so he would be notified if anyone tried to apply for a loan or credit card. It did happen once, when a bank called about a bogus loan; but another time he applied for a loan himself and waited for the call, but it never came.
Thankfully the only problem he has now is trying to remember his new SIN. “I could spiel off my old one now, but the new one, I couldn’t tell you one number in it. I have it written down somewhere.”