I was sitting on the toilet when I got the first call. Like a lot of people, my toilet time is also my social media time, and so my phone was already in my palm when it began buzzing. I didn’t recognize the number but I picked it up anyway. (I almost always answer unknown calls. There’s a deludedly optimistic part of me that wonders if I’ve won some kind of competition I forgot I entered, or if a famous person is calling to tell me they saw my hilarious tweet and now they want me as a staff writer on their TV show. To date, this has never happened.)
Anyway, when I answered the phone, the person on the other end promptly announced they were a “debt collector” and so I scoffed and promptly hung up. I went back to watching Instagram stories on the can.
Me? Debt? Nice try.
But the “debt collector” kept calling. I ignored the calls and let them go to voicemail. I didn’t listen to the voicemails immediately because I’m a millennial and we don’t do that. Anyhow, when I finally got around to listening to the message, the “debt collector” insisted that I needed to call him ASAP to clear up my unpaid cable bill.
Turns out, this guy was legit. I did have an unpaid cable bill, which I verified by calling the cable company service rep who told me, quite curtly, “your account has been turned over to collections. Pay them now.”
So I did. And everything was fine.
Turns out I’m not the only one whose knee-jerk impulse is to smash the “End Call” button when someone so much as suggests wanting money or information over the phone. The Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) recently reported that so many Canadians get calls from scammers pretending to be tax enforcers that real tax agents are having trouble reaching people. In Canada, scam calls are so common that we assume they’re all bullshit, even in those (admittedly rare) times someone is actually trying to help us sort out a financial problem. I mean, remember all those times someone would leave a message on your parent’s answering machine with a cruise ship horn in the background?
“This is your captain speaking,” the imposter would say, “and you’ve won a trip to Bermuda! We just need your credit card number first!” Your parents would roll their eyes, look at you and say, “don’t you ever fall for that crap.”
But some of us did, and still do. Earlier today, Global News reported that phone scams—many coming out of call centers in India—could cost Canadians a record amount of money in 2018. In 2017, Canadians lost over $5 million to CRA phone scams, but this year it could be even worse. RCMP have gone so far as to collaborate with Indian authorities on raids netting more than a dozen arrests, CBC reported this week. But a recent boom of fraudsters means that shutting down the bad guys is a bit like playing a game of whack-a-mole in the dark: you smash one operation and twelve more pop up—but where, exactly?
To help you sort the many “blacklisted” numbers in your phone history from the collections agency calls you should probably answer, VICE looked into all the red flags that go along with a phone scam.
Ask some basic questions
RCMP Sgt. Guy Paul Larocque told CTV News that a good way to spot scammers is to turn the conversation around on them. “If a person is refusing to provide answers to very basic questions, it’s a good indication that it’s a scam,” he told CTV News Wednesday. In Larocque’s case (he was recently contacted by an IRS impersonator) his questions frustrated the scammer to the extent that they hung up. In other words, crooks don’t have time for your to ask them why, precisely, they want your money in the first place. Because to reveal the answer (brah wants to steal) would mean outing themselves. And why not take it a step further? Perhaps ask them what their dream vacation would be, or who their favourite Brooklyn 99 character is. They don’t have time for your bullshit.
If they say they’re going to arrest you…
They’re not. This is a scare tactic meant to intimidate you. If someone is yelling at you over the phone about your potential jail time and the dramatic arrest you’re about to face, hang up—and that goes for situations beyond money scams. Nobody deserves to have verbal fire spewed at them from across the fiber optic network, and even debt collectors (the real kind) understand this. As an example, the collections agent I spoke with regarding my accidental cable bill evasion was one of the sweetest people I’ve ever had the pleasure of paying $80 to. They’re not all bad, but if someone sounds like an angry power-tripper, they probably are.
Listen for bizarre requests
CTV News also reported that scammers often try to get money via Bitcoin (boo), gift cards, wire transfers, or other odd methods of payment. So, if buddy wants a $5,000 gift card to Home Depot, he’s probably not actually the government employee he claims to be.
Do some creepin’
If you sense something funky is afoot, ask the caller for a call-back number and hit up the Google machine. As I mentioned, I did not surrender my precious eighty bucks to the collections company until verifying with my cable provider that everything was hunky-dory. As RCMP Sgt. Ken Derakhshan told Global News, falling for a financial scam can not only be financially devastating (because chances are you won’t get that hard-earned dough back) but also psychologically devastating (cuz you were duped and that stings). Protect yo’self.
So who actually calls?
The CRA does place calls from time to time, but requests for payment are always made in writing, reports Global News. They will NEVER ask for credit card information, passport numbers, SINs, or bank account numbers. It’s possible an agent may call to tell you that you owe money (and during this process they may request your date of birth or home address to confirm your identity) but they will never actually demand money on the spot. For a full list of guidelines, cringey scam stories, and other totally fun stuff related to tax-paying, check out the CRA’s “Protect Yourself Against Fraud” page.
And if you’re a student in debt (hello, everyone), the CRA may also contact you if you’ve ditched your student loan payments for too long—not the loans office itself. According to this exciting Government of Canada page, if you fail to make a payment for 270 days, your account will be passed on to the CRA for collections. I know, that sounds terrifying, but even more terrifying would be to get scammed out of money you haven’t even earned yet.
In summary, don’t give your green to people unless you are one million percent sure that they, and the company they supposedly represent, are legit. Because let’s be honest, if you owe the government a chunk of change, you probably already know it.
Follow Mica on Twitter.