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Phone scams frequently target Canadian seniors. How to spot, respond to and report them, according to an expert

Canadians lost a staggering $554 million to scams in 2023, and fraudsters are only getting smarter.

It's important to recognize red flags when it comes to smart scams. Here's what you need to know. (Getty)
It's important to recognize red flags when it comes to smart scams. Here's what you need to know. (Getty)

In today's digital age, phone and email scams are posing a significant threat to Canadians, especially seniors. From the "grandparent scam" to bank frauds, it's become more important than ever to keep yourself — and your loved ones — safe.

You may think it's tough to fall for random phone calls, but recent data from the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre (CAFC) says more than 41,000 victims in Canada lost a staggering $554 million to scammers in 2023 alone. Only a small portion of this has been recovered by the CAFC (about $6.7 million between 2021 and 2023).

One expert tells Yahoo Canada it's important to recognize red flags, respond effectively to potential scams and educate seniors on evolving tactics.

Here's what you need to know.


What are the red flags of scams? What should I look out for?

The CAFC has received more than 62,000 reports of scams or scam attempts in 2023 and has identified about 70 different types of scams.

The agency's outreach officer, Jeff Horncastle, told Yahoo Canada some are more common than others in Canada. What people tend to fall for the most, are ones that target people's emotions (like the "grandparent scam" or winning a fake lottery), or induce stress over financial situations (for example, owing a fake debt).

If you're getting an incoming call, and the caller is asking for personal information, or to send a payment for whatever reason — consider that a first red flag.

Senior man looking seriously at smartphone. If someone is asking for a payment over the phone or email — you should verify the caller's identity. (Getty)
If someone is asking for a payment over the phone or email — you should verify the caller's identity. (Getty)

Here's what Canadians should be aware of:

  • Caller ID spoofing: Fraudsters can alter the phone number displayed on caller IDs. It may look like a bank, a family member or a lawyer is calling — but it could be fake.

  • Phishing: Scammers can conceal their email addresses and use technology to personalize emails and seem legitimate, but they aren't.

  • Service scams: Offers for deals like discounted cell phone plans might request sensitive information such as social insurance or driver's license numbers for supposed credit checks.

  • Bank investigator scams: Fraudsters posing as financial institutions (banks, investors, Amazon) may claim fraudulent transactions on accounts, urging victims to disclose personal or financial details.

  • Emergency scams: Commonly known as the grandparent scam, where callers claim to be loved ones in urgent need of bail money due to fabricated accidents or legal troubles.

    • Voice cloning: Technology now allows fraudsters to use artificial intelligence (AI) to clone a loved one's voice which can make grandparent scams harder to detect. It's uncommon in Canada as of now.

  • Deep fakes: Artificial intelligence can make a video seem like a celebrity is selling something that they aren't, and it could be a scam. Even though you may see a video of them, it doesn't mean it's real.

The grandparent scam is one that saw a big increase from 2022 to 2023. About $11.3 million was lost in Canada when people became victims to this scam.

You're playing with the victims' emotions. There's a sense of urgency in a lot of telephone scams, like any other scam.

"Typically, this is a phone call claiming to be a loved one or grandchild saying that they were in an accident, and in trouble and they're at risk for being arrested. In a lot of cases, a second suspect will come on the phone, claiming to be law enforcement or a lawyer saying the bail is required, a bill payment is required, in order to avoid going to jail," Horncastle explained. Victims may be asked to have money picked up at their residence, to mail the money or send it via direct deposit or wire transfer.

But what exactly should you do when receiving a call like this? Read on for the expert's advice.


How should I respond to and report a suspicious call, text or email?

Scam incoming call alert screen on mobile phone. Any scam attempt should be reported to the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre. (Getty)
Any scam attempt should be reported to the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre. (Getty)

When confronted with a suspicious call, caution is paramount as "technology frauds are getting harder and harder to detect," Horncastle said.

Before providing personal information or answering any questions, make sure to let the caller know you're going to hang up and call them back to confirm their identity.

The expert advised it's best to hang up and find an official phone number for what the caller claims to be. If it's a bank, Amazon, FedEx, a government agency or another service, find their number online and call it to verify. In the case of a grandparent scam, call your loved one using the number in your contacts to confirm the story.

It's so important to take the time to think about what's going on the call you're getting, and that can really save you from being a victim.

In cases where individuals suspect they've been targeted or victimized, prompt reporting is crucial.

The CAFC offers avenues for reporting incidents, allowing authorities to investigate and take appropriate action. Victims should also take steps to mitigate the risk of identity theft by following the outlined procedures on the CAFC website.

If you have been victimized, call your local police as well.


How can I educate the seniors in my life about scams?

You might want to have a code word with your loved one as an extra layer of protection. (Getty)
You might want to have a code word with your loved one as an extra layer of protection. (Getty)

Expert Horncastle emphasized the importance of initiating these conversations in a non-threatening manner, focusing on education rather than instilling fear.

"Just by having that conversation and making our loved ones aware of what tactics and what tools fraudsters are using, it can go a long way," Horncastle said. Providing practical examples, such as recent scams reported in the news or personal anecdotes, can help seniors grasp the reality of the threat.

Another piece of practical advice is having a code word with your loved one.

"With your grandchild, for example, come up with a code word, just in case, as an extra layer of protection. So if you're not sure if your loved one on the phone, and you can ask them for that code word," he advised. Though, he added, the best way to protect yourself is to make that outgoing phone call.

Horncastle advised families there are some signs that a senior in your life may have been targeted by fraud. These can include being secretive; trying to hide their devices or mentioning an online romantic relationship they're being secretive about.

However, the best action is prevention. Encouraging seniors to verify requests for personal information or payments can reduce the risk of falling victim to scams in the first place.

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