Albertans lost $5.4 million to scam calls last year, anti-fraud centre data says

The CRTC said the 403 area code was among the most targeted by debt collection scam calls.    (CBC - image credit)
The CRTC said the 403 area code was among the most targeted by debt collection scam calls. (CBC - image credit)

The amount that phone scammers have stolen from Albertans has nearly doubled compared to two years prior, mirroring a national trend with fewer victims, but millions of dollars lost.

Data from the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre shows that in 2022 there were 849 reported victims of scam calls in Alberta, totaling more than $5.4 million.

In 2021, 757 Albertans lost $3.4 million and in 2020, 927 people lost $2.1 million. The data relies on what was reported to the centre.

Jeff Horncastle, acting client and communications outreach officer at the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre, said last year service scams — for example the claim to be a cellphone service provider offering an urgent deal and bank investigator reports — historically a debt collection call from Visa or Mastercard — climbed up.

Emergency grandparent scams, calls that say a grandchild is in jail, the hospital, or an accident and needs money, took more than a million dollars from Albertans last year, which significantly boosted the numbers, Horncastle said.

"That multiplied by ten in 2022, and that's the same thing in Canada as well and overall reports to the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre … that was one of the big contributing factors there."

He said there isn't just one reason why Canadians lost more in 2022, but added that scammers increasingly have access to more information which they can use to seem legitimate.

"Their information, their name, their phone number is more than likely online, right?"

"The online directory. If we're sharing information about our family and stuff on social media, well, that information can probably be used, for example, the grandparent scam, where fraudsters in some cases know the name of the grandchild and the name of the grandparents," Horncastle said.

Certain types of scams were particularly costly — last year 30 Albertans lost a total of $2.1 million to investment scams, an average of around $72,000 per victim.

Paul Borkwood/CBC
Paul Borkwood/CBC

Vanessa Iafolla, Halifax fraud consultant and an instructor in the department of criminology at Wilfrid Laurier University, agreed that information that has been accumulating online for so many years makes it easy for scammers to gain access to information about their victims.

"They can market it or target you accordingly, but also because there's information about you that they can use to understand, and exploit you. This is the thing about scammers, this is the trick," she said.

She added that scam calls have proliferated in recent years, with a marked increase in the diversity of the types of calls.

"There's more people after more money … at least in the cases that I'm aware of, scammers are getting much, much better at picking targets who they'll be able to get more money out of," Iafolla said.

The most commonly reported calls to Albertans were related to offers for services, or bank investigation calls— which can include debt collection, and extortion — the threat that if you don't send money immediately you will be arrested.

Data from the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre shows that nationally, Canadians lost more than $45 million dollars in 2022, $41 million in 2021, and $24 million in 2020.

Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) said people who have a Calgary area code are likely to receive scam calls regarding debt collection.

Between October and December 2022, CRTC said the 403 area code was among the most targeted by those types of calls.

This CRTC's investigation division grouped complaints from Canadians into a variety of categories, using analytics received through the National Do Not Call List Operator (National DNCL) and Canada's Anti-Spam Legislation.

The area codes most targeted by scam calls related to debt collection in that time frame are 226, 403, 450, 581, 639, 780 and 905, the CRTC said.

Iafolla said scams are often socially responsive or related to the things people are talking about, for example COVID-19 related calls that emerged during the pandemic, or donations solicited for victims of a national disaster.

The people behind the scam calls will very often pivot to the next thing that they think will work, she said.

But no matter the subject matter of the call, she said, scam calls will often have the same red flags, they will introduce a time crunch and will attempt to isolate you or prevent you from speaking to other people.

"You're the one with the access to your money, you don't owe anybody anything, even if it's a family member. You may want to help them, and maybe you should help them, but you owe it to yourself and that person first to make sure that what's happening is legitimate," Iafolla said.

"There's nothing wrong with verifying, calling up and making sure, independently, figuring out the circumstances are what they are."