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Today’s “crank calls” are targeted and complex, entailing techniques, technology and people in far-off places. With a clear motivation—most often to get money—their delivery is increasingly more sophisticated, efficacious and tough to crack. (Photo by Syda Productions/Shutterstock)

Canada | Fraud

Watch out for (and protect yourself from) these 3 sophisticated phone scams

Telephone fraud is getting harder to trace with use of new robocall and voice recognition technology

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Remember the traditional crank call? You answered the phone only to hear the “click” of a hang up. Amusing for the caller, annoying for you, but relatively harmless. 

Times have changed. Today’s “crank calls” are targeted and complex, entailing techniques, technology and people in far-off places (think of the CRA scam with its roots in India). With a clear motivation—most often to get money—their delivery is increasingly more sophisticated, efficacious and tough to crack. 

There have been some breakthroughs. In recent headlines, the man behind a major lottery phone scam—with origins in Jamaica—Lavrick Willocks, was sentenced in the U.S. to six years federal prison and ordered to pay US$1.5 million in restitution. According to the FBI, there are hundreds of victims—including Canadians, and many elderly [See Seniors too ashamed to report financial fraud, say experts]—who were convinced they had won millions of dollars, and could claim their prize if they wired over a processing fee. 

It’s no surprise for the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre (CAFC). According to the CAFC, almost 22,000 complaints were received in 2017 about direct call scams with  more than $21-million being reported lost. That’s up 33 per cent since 2015. And this number is likely on the low-side, as CAFC estimates that only five per cent of mass marketing fraud victims actually report the incident. [See 5 scams that took the lost money out of Canadian pockets last year]

“Regardless of where the scam is coming from, the key thing is to be on top of what scams are happening,” says RCMP Sgt. Guy Paul Larocque, acting officer in charge for CAFC. “The more you know, the better equipped you are to not follow through. Education is the best way to combat the issue.”

So how can you protect yourself? Read on for a few trending phone scams and how to avoid getting duped. 

THE SCAM: CAN YOU HEAR ME? 

Callers pose as service providers (think mortgage lenders or utility companies) and ask, “Can you hear me?”, shortly after the call is answered. The caller records the recipient’s response “yes” and hangs up. Jackpot! They’ve got what they need—a voice signature that can be used to authorize fraudulent charges to personal accounts and credit cards via telephone where voice authentication is permitted. (Yes, the scammer may have already obtained personal information such as credit card numbers or account information, which is used with the voice recording to authorize charges.)

The voice recording can also be used to facilitate “cramming”, a form of fraud which commonly occurs when telephone service providers permit third-party vendors to add charges to customers’ bills. As a result, the victim’s phone number is treated like a credit or debit card for the “fake” vendor. Unauthorized charges usually appear as additional features to a mobile phone or payment for services like daily horoscopes. For scammers, it’s as easy as picking an active number from a telephone directory. 

The use of a voiceprint by scammers is likely to increase, say experts, with the advancement and introduction of voice biometrics software as a form of identity verification. 

“Just using the technology as a new option to satisfy the customer is not enough,” says Dr. Arash Habibi Lashkari, assistant professor and R&D co-ordinator for the Canadian Institute for Cybersecurity (CIC), faculty of computer science at the University of New Brunswick. “We should think about the security as well, which is one of the main issues.” [See When choosing AI, think of the client’s privacy first, says expert Chantal Bernier]

FRAUD PREVENTION TIPS:

  • Don’t answer any calls from unknown numbers. Let it go to voicemail.
  • If you do answer the call, do not respond to any questions asked by a recorded voice, or a live voice. If you are asked “Am I speaking with Mr. or Mrs/Ms. (insert your name) do not say “yes”, “yes, this is” or any variation of, but instead, hang up or ask who it is that is calling you? From there, be wary of saying anything further, and do not provide any personal information.
  • Be vigilant about checking your bill statements to ensure there aren’t any suspicious or unknown charges.  

THE SCAM: WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOUR? 

Using robocaller technology, scammers (from wherever they are) pick up local numbers, familiar to the victim, so they are more likely to answer the call. Once they get a live person on the phone, they try to not only coerce them into handing over personal info and funds, but to also use their number for future scams.

The victim may be placed on hold, and then redirected to a live “agent” who could pretend to be a government or legal representative demanding a payment, or perhaps a bank representative promising a lower interest rate on your credit card or mortgage, in exchange for your personal information.

Robocall technology, in general, makes it increasingly more difficult to track down a call’s origin as they can travel through various carriers and networks, while using different phone numbers each time a call is made. 

“Unfortunately, we have a system with Caller ID [where] the [scammers] can create a number from your area and use it…and they can do the same with email,” says Habibi Lashkari. “Cyber criminals are working well together. They have a very good collaboration system.”

FRAUD PREVENTION TIPS:

  • Don’t answer any calls from unknown numbers, even if they appear familiar. Let it go to voicemail.
  • Register your phone number with the “National Do Not Contact” list to help reduce unwanted calls, such as those from telemarketers. B Try blocking the contact number on your mobile phone (RogersBellTelus offer instructions on how to do so). Alternatively, use a robocall blocking app such as Nomorobo, Hiya Caller ID and BlockRoboKiller or Truecaller
  •  If you are prompted by a recording to press a button, or a taken through a list of options, don’t make a selection, simply hang up. 
  • Whether listening to a recording or live person, never hand over personal information, be it your full name and address or your bank account information. 

THE SCAM: CALL ME BACK

This “one ring” scam entails a fraudster calling from an unknown number—which may look domestic but is actually a pay-per-call international number—and lets it ring once, or twice, before hanging up. The hope is that the curious recipient calls the number back, which in turn racks up international-call-rate fees, or related charges, onto the victim’s phone bill or account. In some cases, it can be hundreds of dollars per minute. The charges may appear on your phone bill as a premium service. 

FRAUD PREVENTION TIPS:

  • Don’t answer or call back any unknown calls. Let it go to voicemail. 
  • If the call is indeed suspicious, consider blocking the number (see options above) and reporting the incident to authorities. 

To stay informed, check out the list of more common phishing scams laid out by the CAFC. If you’ve received a scam call, or believe you’ve fallen victim to one, jot down the details including the phone number, request made, information you provided and funds you sent along, and immediately report the incident to the CAFC and your financial institution or service provider. 

FOR MORE

Did you know? Fear of identity theft is a big concern for Canadians, according to CPA Canada’s 2018 fraud survey. You can also delve further into how to safeguard yourself with tips from Protecting you and your money: A guide to avoiding identity theft and fraud.