The rise of senior phone scams: how to prevent being fooled

·8 min read

The news has been rife this summer with stories of Manitobans being scammed out of hundreds, or even tens of thousands, of dollars due to phone scams. All too often, the victims are senior citizens.

One can only hypothesize about the reasons that seniors have become the primary targets of these fraudsters. But it’s fairly safe for a scammer to assume that many seniors have a certain level of disposable income sitting in a bank account that can be accessed.

According to Constable Dani McKinnon of the Winnipeg Police Service’s financial crimes unit, it may also have something to do with the fact that the aging are often very kindhearted and trusting individuals.

“We have received reports of… scams, unfortunately, involving elderly victims,” McKinnon told the Free Press. “These fraudsters play on the good, helpful nature of average people. The victims truly believe they are helping.”

Grandparent scams—or emergency scams, as they’ve become known—involve a phone call from someone posing as a grandchild of the victim who is, oftentimes, in a state of distress and tears, pleading for cash to bale them out of a troubling legal situation they’ve landed in.

The senior, addressed as Grandma or Grandpa by the caller, is implored to keep the parents out of it to prevent further shaming for the grandchild.

In some instances, the phone is passed to a second party, who claims to be the caller’s lawyer. They, too, come off as professional and incredibly convincing.

In July of this year, city police received 15 reports of similar scams within a six-day period. Total losses for those who fell victim came in at somewhere between $200,000 and $300,000.

In this case, two Ontario women were arrested. It’s unclear whether any of the stolen funds will be recovered.

Canadian Fraud Statistics

The Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre (CAFC) is the nation’s central online repository for information regarding reported frauds. It is jointly managed by the RCMP, the Competition Bureau Canada, and the Ontario Provincial Police.

According to CAFC statistics, almost 53,000 incidences of fraud were reported across the country as of July 31, 2022. These involved just over 33,000 victims and almost $285 million lost to scammers.

The number of reported incidents and victims, at that point in the year, were at about 50 percent of the annual numbers recorded for 2021.

Unfortunately, according to CAFC stats, the amount of money that gets recovered by police only equals one-third of what was lost.

What’s startling about the amount of money lost to fraud this year, though, is that it appears to be on a significant upswing from last year.

In 2021, the total dollars reported as scammed amounted to $381 million. In keeping with the 50 percent calculation for incidences and victims to date, this year’s amount should come to around $190 million.

By July 2022, though, that number has already been exceeded by almost $100 million.

This likely speaks to the fact that, while people are becoming more aware of the risk, scammers are becoming increasingly more savvy and convincing.

A Lorette Victim Speaks Out

A recent report in the Winnipeg Free Press tells the story of a 71-year-old Lorette woman who lost more than $50,000 to a scammer before she was called in for a personal meeting with her bank.

“It sounded very legitimate. They were very persuasive,” victim Dolores Brommell told the Free Press. “I thought I was helping out.”

The ruse began when Brommell received a call from a man posing as a Royal Bank of Canada employee who convinced her that her assistance could be integral in helping the RCMP catch the ringleader of a con.

Sensing her willingness to help, the caller warned her to keep details of the sting operation hush-hush, not disclosing anything to anyone, including family members or bank staff.

Over the next ten days, the fraudster instructed Brommell to purchase more than 100 prepaid credit cards and gift cards, paying for them with cash drawn from an ATM terminal. Assuring her that she’d be reimbursed, the scammer also convinced Brommell to disclose to them the gift card numbers and PINs.

At the same time, the con artist was able to remotely take control of her computer and supply her with falsified bank statements to further convince her of the legitimacy of the claims. In so doing, the scammer managed to remove $25,000 from Brommell’s line of credit.

“My major concern is how they were able to get into my line of credit,” said Brommell. “I didn’t even know I had a line of credit.”

It’s becoming more and more clear to investigators that the fraudsters aren’t individual punks hoping to score on a single scam.

“We believe that these frauds are being committed by organized groups,” says Constable Jay Murray of the Winnipeg Police Service. “They aren’t fly-by-night operations.”

Unfortunately, in the case of Brommell, the RCMP have concluded their investigation, citing that the scam likely originated overseas and the phone number used by the scammer is untraceable.

A Cyber Security Tech Weighs In

Tristan Friesen of Niverville is an IT guy with certification in cybersecurity and defense. He says that the police are often powerless when it comes to investigating phone scams, since the phone systems are old and phone number authentication is a big problem.

The cost of recovering stolen money is also a deterrent, Friesen adds, as the manpower and resources needed for the investigation can quickly outweigh the amount that was stolen in the first place.

“Phone scams are definitely getting pretty technical in terms of both how the scam works and how they convince you it’s true,” Friesen says. “These scams also have common themes, most relying on either something being too good to be true or an extreme sense of urgency.”

If you’re not completely certain of the caller’s legitimacy, he says, hang up.

Recognizing Phone Fraud

The Canadian Bankers Association (CBA) website has a full page dedicated to recognizing and avoiding phone fraud.

According to the site, the general objective of the phone scammer is usually to trick you into revealing personal information or to get you to send money or gift cards.

“In some variations of the scam, you’ll receive a call or a voicemail from a criminal who is posing as a government agency or member of law enforcement,” the site states. “The message says you have an overdue balance or outstanding debt or that there is a warrant out for your arrest. In other variations of the scam, the criminal may pose as a bank employee asking you to assist them with an investigation into fraudulent activity on your bank or credit card account.”

Red flags to watch for, they say, are the use of threatening or aggressive language intended to intimidate. Another red flag is when the caller announces that the call recipient has won a contest or prize they never entered. Or when the caller has to ask your name or fish for details on the name of your grandchild, in the case of grandparent scams.

Finally, when the caller requests payment of any kind by way of gift cards, bitcoin, or wire transfer, it is almost surely a scam.

The CAFC similarly adds one other major red flag to watch for: “If it seems too good to be true, it is.”

Simple principles to avoid being scammed, they say, are to write down the information that is being provided to you by the caller and then kindly hang up. This provides time for the call recipient to verify that the company name used is a legitimate one.

At this point, talk to people. Call family members and friends and reveal the nature of the call. They should be able to provide an outsider’s opinion of what you’re dealing with and make recommendations on how to proceed.

Never contact a caller on the number by which you received the call. If they presented themselves from a specific organization such as a government agency, your financial institution, the police department, or your credit card company, use the administrative lines provided by these companies to call them back and query whether the call was made from their office.

Finally, regardless of the legitimacy of the caller or agency, never provide personal information such as a social insurance number, credit card number, bank account PIN, or other identifying information.

The CBA website also provides information on what to do if you are concerned you’ve been the victim of a scan.

“If you think you have provided personal or financial information to a criminal, contact the organization involved right away. If you have provided some of your banking or credit card information, contact your bank or financial institution immediately and they will advise you on what you should do. You can also call your local police department.”

Talking Openly About Fraud

Connie Newman is the executive director of the Manitoba Association of Seniors Centres. She says it’s time to put the stigma and shame of being scammed aside in order to spread awareness and help prevent others from becoming victims.

For aging seniors, she says the conversation should begin with family members who have an open relationship with their aging loved one.

Newman has heard of seniors who have lost their life savings, including one individual who lost $110,000. For this reason, she’s stopped accepting any calls unless she recognizes the incoming phone number.

“Some end up in poverty,” Newman told the Free Press. “If you take a retired person who loses $25,000 of their savings, it’s devastating. This is not a senior issue. It’s a life issue we need to keep track of.”1

Brenda Sawatzky, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Niverville Citizen