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With the global pandemic, reports of phishing, scams, and fraud are on the rise. Not only are there more people and charities reaching out for money, experts believe that social isolation is making us all more vulnerable to being taken advantage of in these dark times.

Here we put together some top tips to help you spot and avoid phishing, fraud, and scams. We also give you information about what to do if you think you’ve been victimized.

What are phishing, scams, and fraud exactly?

While these words are often interchangeable, they do each have a specific sort of meaning.

Phishing

Phishing is what we call attempts to steal personal information such as passwords or credit card numbers, or to get you to inadvertently install malicious software on your device (which they can then exploit to steal your personal information, etc.).

Phishing almost always takes the form of email or other online communication from a reputable company or organization you would normally trust, such as your bank. Phishing usually results in stolen information or a compromised device.

Scams

Scams don’t necessarily rely on technology and have been around for as long as humans. Scammers are usually attempting to steal money or other valuables from you directly through lies or other deception

Of course the internet has given rise to a whole plethora of new scams, including romance scams, or the infamous “foreign prince” scams. Scams usually involve you sending money or valuables to someone else.

Fraud

Fraud is also similar-but-different, and usually involves someone pretending to be someone else or using someone else’s information. Credit card fraud, for example, where someone uses your credit card information to purchase things, but leaves you stuck with the bill.

All of this aside, what are some of the more recent forms of phishing, scams, and fraud? And more importantly, how can you protect yourself against them?

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Some recent examples of phishing, scams, and fraud

The Canadian Centre for Cyber Security collectively refers to phishing, scams, and fraud that make use of internet technology as “cyber incidents.”

The global coronavirus pandemic has given rise to a wide variety of new cyber incidents that you should watch out for. These can take many different forms.

Scammers will also contact you other ways, including by text or phone. Always be cautious of unsolicited emails, texts, and phone calls, even if they appear to be coming from a legitimate source. There are lots of ways scammers can make it look like they’re legitimate.

Here are some examples and tips on how to to spot and avoid scammers.

Charity and donation scams

In these, someone contacts you about donating to a charity or similar organization, and uses high-pressure tactics to get you to send them money immediately. Many times the charity does not exist at all, or the scammer is lying about their association with it.

How to avoid charity scams

The best way to avoid a charity scam is to ask for information in writing before donating, or to go to the charity’s website independently and donate there. Never give money to someone on the phone, or through links in an email.

You can also verify that a charity is registered through the “list of charities” search on the CRA website, but remember that this doesn’t guarantee that the person is actually associated with the charity. If you have any doubt at all, don’t give them any money or payment information, and do your own research later.

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Crowdfunding scams

Many of us are familiar with the concept of crowdfunding at this point. In this type of scam a person will set up a project or donation drive, requesting money to support the creation of a product, such as a book or game, or to support a person or business in need of financial assistance.

The vast majority of crowdfunding drives are legitimate, but some are completely fabricated or the money will not actually go to the person or project it’s supposed to be for.

How to avoid crowdfunding scams

The best way to avoid these scams is to do some research before giving anyone any money or your credit card information.

Some questions you can ask yourself are:

  • Is the creator of the campaign legitimate?
  • Do they have anyone else trustworthy supporting their efforts?
  • If it’s a product of some sort, is it realistic or does it sound too good to be true?
  • Are other people questioning its validity?

Doing some research and waiting a few days before sending your money can go a long way to avoiding losing money to one of these scams.

Fake ads for health-related products

With the growing global pandemic, fake news and fake ads about face masks, hand sanitizers, or home medical testing kits are cropping up more and more. They may also be advertising vaccines or herbal remedies, exploiting the stress and fear people are feeling.

Often these are completely fabricated, are outright fakes, or are ineffective. If you receive anything at all for your money, it will not be what you paid for.

How to avoid health scams

In Canada, all health-related products have to be registered with Health Canada. Right now there are no approved home test kits, vaccines, or other remedies for the coronavirus. And with the global shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE), most legitimate sources of things like masks and gloves are providing those directly to medical facilities or health-care workers.

In these cases it is simply best to err heavily on the side of caution and don’t send anyone your money or credit card information.

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Emergency scams

These scams attempt to get you to send money by claiming to be a friend or family member who is in an emergency situation, such as being stuck in another country, or that they have been in an accident or arrested.

How to avoid emergency scams

These sorts of scams can be difficult to handle, because we have an innate desire to help our loved ones. To avoid being scammed in this way:

  • pause and do not react immediately,
  • if you have one, use a known-legitimate phone number to call the person or someone who is close to them,
  • verify their identity by asking questions the real person would only know the answer to,
  • do not send money directly, send a cheque or money order by overnight delivery or courier so they have to verify their identity upon receipt, and
  • verify the story with other friends or family members, even if they ask you to keep it secret.

With a bit of caution you can avoid losing money in these situations, even when your instinct is to help your loved one immediately. Scammers love playing on people’s compassion.

Utility company scams

Here the scammers are pretending to be from your electricity or gas company and claim that you have an unpaid balance on your bill. They threaten to cut off your service unless you give them money immediately. Often they will tell you to call a 1-800 number to make a payment using a prepaid gift card or electronic transfer.

Sometimes scammers will come to your house pretending to be from a utility company and attempt to get in your home or to get you to sign a contract for a new water heater or the like. Never let them in your house, and never sign anything that someone brings to your door.

How to avoid utility company scams

No legitimate utility company is going to phone or email and demand immediate payment. If you receive a communication like this:

  • immediately hang up if they called you,
  • don’t click on any links in texts or email messages asking you to accept electronic transfers,
  • never pay anyone using bitcoin, prepaid cards, or gift cards,
  • avoid sharing personal information over the phone or in email,
  • verify the identity of anyone who claims to be from a utility company, and
  • remember that utility companies never do door-to-door sales or inspections.

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Immigration extortion

Preying on recent immigrants, these scammers will call or email, telling you that you haven’t sent in or completed required documentation. They will insist that you pay the fees immediately or risk being deported, or losing your passport or citizenship.

How to avoid immigration extortion scams

Immigration extortion scams are particularly heinous because they exploit the fears of newcomers to our country. In these cases it’s very important to remember that Canadian immigration officials will never ask you for money or threaten immediate punishment.

If you believe someone is trying to extort you:

  • do not be afraid to say no, or to just hang up,
  • reach out to friends and family for help, or
  • call an immigration lawyer if you are still unsure.

At no point would you be expected to deal with serious immigration issues alone. Reach out to people you trust for help.

Canada Revenue Agency scams

These have become increasingly common, and involve very forceful tactics threatening jail time or steep penalty fees if you do not pay what you owe immediately. We’re all a little leery of the CRA at the best of times, so it is a very effective strategy.

Sometimes scammers will claim that you are actually owed money, such as an unexpected tax return or benefit, and ask you for personal information such as your passport number, bank account numbers, or credit card information. These are also scams.

How to avoid CRA scams

It’s important to know how the CRA does and doesn’t contact people and gather information. The CRA will call you on the phone and email you, but they will never:

  • ask for personal or financial information other than your name, birthdate and social insurance number,
  • demand immediate payment by credit card or in any other form,
  • use aggressive or threatening language,
  • threaten to have you arrested or deported,
  • leave threatening voicemails, or
  • send you emails with links for payment or refunds – they will always have you independently go to the CRA website.

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Credit card fraud

Credit card fraud is what happens when someone obtains your credit card information and uses it without your permission, buying things or withdrawing money and leaving you stuck with the bill.

It’s very important to safeguard your credit card information as best you can. You should also look into what policies your credit card issuer has around credit card fraud and what protections they provide.

How to avoid credit card fraud

Scammers have a wide range of tactics they use to steal credit card information, including going through your trash to find old credit card or bank statements, installing “skimmers” on ATMs or other card swiping systems, hacking into computers, sending phishing emails, and so on.

So how can you protect yourself? The most important thing is to protect your credit card information by:

  • keeping your credit card in a safe place,
  • protecting your PIN and keeping it secret,
  • shred your credit card and bank statements before throwing them away,
  • only shop online at trusted websites, and
  • never give your credit card information in email or over the phone.

If you believe you have been the victim of credit card fraud, contact your credit card issuer immediately and put a fraud alert on your credit report. Also report the fraud to the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre.

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Identity theft

Identity theft is similar to credit card fraud, in that someone steals your personal information and uses it for some form of criminal activity, such as:

  • access your bank or credit card information,
  • open new bank accounts or credit cards in your name,
  • change your online passwords and information,
  • rent an apartment or car, and
  • the list goes on and on.

Identity theft usually happens when scammers are able to get a hold of your credit card or bank statements, PINs, passport, driver’s license, or SIN card. This can happen either in the real world or online.

How to avoid identity theft

The most important thing is to understand how valuable your information is to some people and protect it as best you can. Some of the strategies identity thieves use are:

  • stealing mail out of your mailbox,
  • going through your garbage looking for credit card or bank statements,
  • stealing your online passwords and using those to access information you have stored online,
  • among other things.

The most important things you can do to avoid identity theft are to protect your physical sources of information as best you can (shred bank statements, get a lockable mailbox), and to use different secure passwords on all your online accounts.

Avoiding phishing, scams, and fraud: a checklist

Let’s summarize some top tips for protecting yourself against scammers.

Do some research first

Before giving anyone money, err on the side of caution and do some research. And remember to trust your gut:

  • Is the person legitimate? Do they have proper identification or other credentials?
  • Is the organization or charity legitimate? Does it really exist? Is it registered with the list of charities? Can you verify that it has a real, trusted website?
  • Is the product or project legitimate? Are other trustworthy people talking about it? Are some people questioning its validity? Does it just feel too good to be true?

Be cautious and get help if you need it

If you’re in a situation where you think you’re being scammed:

  • pause and don’t react immediately,
  • say no and/or just hang up,
  • verify the person or organization by calling a number you know is legitimate,
  • never give out your personal or banking information by phone or email,
  • never pay anyone using bitcoin, prepaid cards, or gift cards,
  • reach out to friends and family for help or advice, and
  • call the police if you need help and are unsure what to do.

Protect your information

Avoid credit card fraud and identity theft by:

  • getting a lockable mailbox,
  • storing your bank and credit cards in a safe place,
  • keeping your PIN and other credit card and bank information secret,
  • shredding bank and credit card statements before putting them in the trash,
  • only using trusted websites for online shopping and payments,
  • never giving your credit card or bank information over email or the phone, and
  • using unique secure passwords on all of your online accounts.

Reporting phishing, scams, and fraud in Canada

There are a number of different organizations you can contact if you have been the victim of phishing, fraud, or scams.

Contact your financial institution

First, if you believe someone is fraudulently using your banking information or credit cards, you should contact your financial institution. They will work with you to protect your money and accounts, and to replace your cards if needed.

Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre

The Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre exists to collect information about fraud and identity theft. If you have been a victim of either of these things, you should report it to them.

Their website is also a valuable resource for learning about past and current scams that have been reported to them, so is a great place to do some research.

Canadian Centre for Cyber Security

If you are aware of a serious cyber incident, you should contact the Canadian Centre for Cyber Security using either the email addresses or phone number on their contact page.

Contact the police

Even if the police can’t do anything to help you immediately, reporting the incident and getting a file number for future reference can help. If other fraudulent activity shows up on your statements or account activity, be sure to contact the police again and have them add that to your file. This will help you regain control over your information and protect your credit score.

For more information, see the “what do do if you’re a victim of fraud” page at the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre.

Your turn

There are always going to be people out there who want to steal your money or personal information. Hopefully we’ve given you some tips that will help you protect yourself from these incidents in the future.

Do you have any top tips for avoiding phishing, scams, or fraud?

Have you ever been in a situation where you think you were being scammed?

Let us know in the comments.