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Seniors’ Series: Scammers Continue to Target Seniors in the Pandemic

“Investigation Department of Service Canada. How can I help you?”

Every year, Canadians receive a deluge of phone calls and emails from fraudsters, who attempt to use fear or tempting promises to steal large sums of money. Telephone scammers often spoof local phone numbers, and pretend to be either government agents threatening their victims with arrest, or representatives of large businesses offering services or refunds. Email scammers use a variety of tactics, which include: promising to transfer vast fortunes to their victims after receiving a smaller advance fee, impersonating people the victims know while asking for money, establishing sham romantic relationships with the victims, and using phishing links to harvest the victims’ personal information. This is only a partial list of examples, and the variety of scams tends to expand as the scammers revise and adapt their techniques. Scammers often insist on payment methods that are difficult or impossible to reverse, such as gift cards or shipments of cash.

A common characteristic of these scams is that they normally involve some sort of emotional manipulation. The emotion in question is often fear (“send the money or you will be arrested”), loneliness (“I can move in with you and build our relationship if you send me some money first”), or financial hope (“the reason we have called is that you previously paid for our services, and now we are giving you a refund”).

While many Canadians can easily identify these scams, scammers still manage to steal millions of dollars every year. For a variety of reasons, seniors are among the most vulnerable groups, and are often deliberately targeted by the scammers. Some seniors, who live alone and feel isolated from family and friends, are eager to eager to establish connections with the strangers who contact them. Some have begun to lose their capacity to evaluate a stressful situation, and instead feel compelled to trust the authority of the purported government agents who are threatening them. Some do not understand the relatively new devices that they use well enough to distinguish genuine technical support from fraud.

Evidence suggests that the prevalence of this type of fraudulent activity has increased during the COVID-19 pandemic, and that scammers have exploited the pandemic itself to manipulate their victims. The Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre is on pace to receive many more reports of fraud in 2020 than it did in 2019. Scammers who pretend to offer some sort of pandemic relief payment to individuals have been reported, as have scammers who offer fraudulent COVID-19 tests. Already a popular organization for scammers to impersonate, Service Canada is now seeing its name used in many of these pandemic-related frauds.

The current situation has been described as a “target-rich environment” for scammers because many people are more isolated and fearful than usual, have suffered financial loss due to the pandemic, and are spending a great deal of their time online. As always, seniors’ advocates are noting that seniors are being disproportionately affected.

Below are some tips on how to protect oneself, and one’s elderly relatives, against phone and email fraud:

  • Be aware of the common practices of frequently impersonated organizations. The Canada Revenue Agency and Service Canada do not phone individuals to address urgent and frightening situations. Nor do Microsoft, Amazon, and McAfee.
  • Recognize the signs of emotional manipulation. A promised payment that seems too good to be true probably is. A caller who needs money immediately, or else bad things will happen, is probably lying.
  • Be alert for strange payment methods. Taxes cannot be paid in gift cards.
  • Check on elderly relatives, maintain relationships with them, and provide support. The COVID-19 pandemic has made this more difficult, as health-related restrictions have reduced access between seniors and supportive family members. It is important to ensure seniors still have support systems they can rely in this difficult time.
  • Be alert for capacity concerns, and prepared to address them. Capacity issues can be difficult to identify, in part because capacity can fluctuate over time. They can also be an uncomfortable topic to raise with elderly relatives, as a loss of capacity can greatly threaten a person’s independence. But having proper support in place, including powers of attorney, can be of great assistance in protecting against fraud and other elder abuse.
  • Practice cautious habits when in doubt. Be prepared to hang up a strange phone call, and call the organization back at its public phone number, even if the scammer has pretended to call from this number in the first place. Look up how to contact an organization instead of replying to a strange email that appears to be from it. Teach these habits to others as needed.
  • If scammed, be careful about falling victim to shame, or the sunk cost fallacy. Victims sometimes continue to send more money to scammers because they refuse to admit that they have been fooled, or that the money they already sent will yield no return. Scammers fool many people every year, and while being a victim is upsetting, it need not be a source of great shame.

Finally, a short and not-nearly-exhaustive list of some resources:

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