Photo: Flickr/Creative Commons,Rick.

Remember when answering the phone was a pleasure? When you looked forward to finding out who was on the line? These days, it feels like a game of Russian roulette. Will it be your favourite sister? An old friend? Someone wanting to clean your air ducts? Or, worse yet, a sophisticated telephone fraudster bent on scamming you, or someone you love.

It’s the latter that concerns Eric Karjaluoto, co-founder of Vancouver-based SmashLab, a digital, brand and advertising agency that also has a hand in the development of web applications and other technology platforms.

Eric Karjaluoto, co-founder of Vancouver-based SmashLab

When a caller posing as Microsoft tech support bilked an older family member out of a serious sum of money, Karjaluoto witnessed firsthand the devastation wrought by telephone fraudsters.

“This is a smart person who has worked at a high level. It freaks me out what he, and others, can get nabbed by,” says Karjaluoto. “You hear about people who have worked a lifetime to save a small amount of money to live a decent retirement losing it all, or the worst is suicide. If I can stop that from happening to someone,
I will.”

A first line of defence

SmashLab co-founders Eric Karjaluoto (left) and Eric Shelkie launched Telgard in February.

As a result, Karjaluoto, with business partner Eric Shelkie, created Telgard, a system designed to help caregivers protect loved ones, while also helping individuals thwart unwanted calls.

Telgard helps prevent phone fraud by barring robocalls, telemarketers and scammers from making contact. Users register online and once installed, Telgard prescreens calls, blocking known scam callers on sight by checking each number against an evolving list of known scammers. Other unknown callers are asked by a virtual assistant to identify themselves.

Approved calls are added to a safe list, which means friends, family, doctors, etc. can get through no problem and users—either the call recipient or a designated caregiver—can edit preferences. Telgard offers different features depending on the level of protection provided with plans ranging from $8 to $14 a month.

The service is designed for landlines in Canada and the United States, but for now works only with phone providers that are voice over Internet protocol-based (VoIP), as it depends on the simultaneous ring feature.

“We provide a filter,” says Karjaluoto. “We are blocking out the worst, but individuals still need to be vigilant.”

Scammers target older adults

Fraudsters often use automated “robocalls” to call thousands of numbers a second with the purposed of identifying those most vulnerable, including older adults, who are assumed to have retirement savings, and those with cognitive impairments. Fraudsters are conniving and convincing, often using psychological tactics and threats to exert control.

Their motivation is to get money or steal identities and it works. In recent years, a rash of scam callers posing as agents from the Canada Revenue Agents swindled 4,000 taxpayers out of $15 million, according to the RCMP.

In this case, scammers use (VoIP) technology and auto-dial to relentlessly dial multiple Canadian telephone numbers. When people answered, scammers deployed “threats, intimidation and persuasion” to get the target to pay taxes “owed.” The RCMP worked with police in India to close 40 call centres and arrest dozens of people.

Older people are targeted by phone scammers because they are believed to have retirement money available. Photo: Flickr/Creative Commons, James Petts.

Knowledge is power and protection

Law enforcement, governments and financial institutions are working together to combat scam operations, but experts agree that education is to key to prevention.

In a bid to prevent further scams, the CRA recently published a checklist to help people sort fact from fiction.

The CRA may contact you:

  • To verify your identity by asking for personal information such as your name, date of birth, address, account or social insurance number
  • To ask for details about your account
  • To initiate an audit process

The CRA will never:

  • Use aggressive language or threaten to arrest you
  • Leave threatening voicemails
  • Demand immediate payment by Interac e-transfer, Bitcoin, prepaid credit cards and gift cards from the likes of iTunes and Amazon.
  • Ask for information about your passport, health card or driver’s licence

6 common telephone scams

Phone scammers are constantly moving on to the next big swindle so it’s important to be informed. Here are a few common approaches:

Call me back  Your phone rings once or twice and the caller hangs up. It looks like a familiar local number so the curious recipient calls back, racking up international call-rate fees that can be hundreds of dollars a minute.

Grandparent scam  A grandchild or family member is in trouble and allegedly calls asking for cash. The unwitting recipient transfers money thinking they are helping someone they love.

Can you hear me?  Callers pose as service providers, such as banks or utility companies and ask, “Can you hear me?” or “Am I speaking to Mrs. X?” shortly after the call is answered. When the target says “yes” the scammer hangs up because they’ve got a voice signature that can be used to authorize fraudulent charges to bank accounts that use voice authentication.

Tip: Hang up or ask, “Who am I talking to?” Avoid saying “yes.”

You’ve won a free or discounted vacation  Posing as legitimate travel companies, fraudsters call congratulating you for having won a contest and collect your personal data or credit card numbers to make arrangements.

Tip: If you didn’t enter a contest, chances are you didn’t win one.

Calling from tech support  In 2015, Microsoft reported 3.3 million people (including many older adults like Karjaluoto’s relative) were targeted by fake tech-support staff that scammed people out of $1.5 billion. Variations of the scam are ongoing.

Tip: Hang up. Microsoft and similar companies do not make unsolicited calls.

Grief scam  Fraudsters peruse obituaries to find people who are vulnerable, then reach out either offering help, counselling or even posing as clergy or financial institutions. It’s all part of an effort to gain access to bank accounts or commit identity theft.

It’s for the children  Callers pose as real charities during times of disaster or make up fake charities (often pretending to call on behalf of police or firefighters).

Tip: Confirm that the tax registration number for a not-for-profit organization is legitimate by calling the CRA (1-800-267-2384) or visiting their online charity database.

Take action

  1. Put safeguards in place and stay up-to-date on the latest scams by visiting the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre website. It’s also important to report all telephone fraud attempts (even if you don’t fall prey) by calling 1-888-495-8501 or online at www.antifraudcentre.ca.
  2. If you think you’ve been the victim of a scam, it’s important to know you’ve not alone. Contact your local police, your bank and credit card companies, and confide in someone you can trust.
  3. Related read: Defence Strategies for Older Adults Targeted by Financial Scammers