Martin Zelikovitz received a call that shook him up. A man claiming to be from the Canada Revenue Agency said his tax return had been reviewed and he owed money.
“He said that if I didn’t pay right away, he was coming to my house momentarily with armed police and was going to arrest me,” the Toronto real estate agent recalls.
“I calmly told this person that if the CRA wanted to tell me something, it would contact me by letter. He went nuts and started yelling and screaming at me.”
Threatening calls from phony tax collectors are hitting Canada with a vengeance after sweeping through Australia, Britain and the United States.
The fraudsters often turn abusive when people question their authority.
“This is a terrifying scam. If you fall prey to it, you generally lose $1,500 to $4,500,” says Daniel Williams, senior call taker supervisor with the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre, jointly managed by the RCMP, OPP and federal Competition Bureau.
In 2014, the anti-fraud centre received 1,251 complaints about fake CRA calls. It has received 5,899 complaints in the first 10 months of this year – and total reported losses are up to $800,000 (from $253,000 in 2014).
“We get a tiny slice of what’s out there,” says Williams, adding that some people don’t know of the anti-fraud centre and others can’t get through during busy times.
In recent years, Canadians have received a slew of phony emails claiming to be from the CRA about a tax refund awaiting them if they click a link to update their personal information. Most people just ignore them.
The fake phone calls are more serious. They have the potential to bully seniors and newcomers to Canada into paying taxes they don’t owe by talking about terrible consequences if the money is not sent right away.
“The Canada Revenue Agency is aware of telephone scams where the caller claims to be from the CRA, but is not and is asking Canadians to beware,” says spokesman Paul-Noel Murphy. “These calls are fraudulent and could result in identity and financial theft.”
Almost all the calls come from India, says Williams. The call centres used to target Indian nationals living and working abroad, Williams says, but now go after the Canadian population as a whole.
The CRA has posted a recording of a sample automated call, where a man says: “We have registered a criminal case against you concerning a tax evasion and tax fraud in the federal court house.”
He gives a bogus 613 area code number for CRA headquarters and says if you don’t call back, “please be prepared to face the legal consequences, as this issue of tax is extremely serious and time-sensitive.”
Here is more information about the scammers’ tactics from the anti-fraud centre:
· They call on your home phone and use your name if they find a listing for you in an online directory.
· They say there has been an audit of your tax returns from 2008 to 2013. This gives them some wiggle room.
· They accuse you of deliberately hiding your income, which will result in a minimum court fine of $50,000, much higher than what you owe in unpaid taxes.
· They do not tell you to write a cheque to the Receiver General for Canada, the usual recipient of tax owing.
· They ask you to send money to them using Western Union, Moneygram, a prepaid card purchased at a store or direct deposit into a bank account.
· They warn this is a confidential matter. You cannot speak of it to your spouse, family or friends.
In a recording of an actual phone conversation last June, posted by CBC radio, a man with an Indian accent tells a woman that local law enforcement will arrive in 45 minutes with a warrant in her name.
Accusing her of possible money laundering or under the table deals, he says the CRA will put a lien on her house, grab her wages, notify her creditors and take away her passport until the tax bill is paid in full.
The Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre can’t keep up with the complaints – not only from those who lose money, but also from those who feel victimized by the fraudulent CRA agents.
“The callers are extremely abusive,” Williams says. “They keep you frightened, on edge, rattled, since you are not going to send money if you calm down and think things through.
“They often go ballistic if you say it’s a scam. They can’t get your money, but they want to make sure you have a bad day.”
I’ve heard from several Star readers, asking if the calls were genuine. They feel intimidated by multiple messages threatening CRA lawsuits and frustrated when they can’t get through to anyone to report the harassment.
What can you do if you get these calls? Here are some tips:
· Verify, verify, verify. Find out who you are dealing with before parting with any of your money.
· Google is your best friend. Write down any phone numbers or reference numbers you receive and put them into the search engine. This will usually turn up other complaints.
· Call the Canada Revenue Agency to find out if you do owe money. The number is 1-800-959-8281 for individual concerns and 1-800-959-5525 for business-related calls.
· Remember that the CRA never leaves personal information on your answering machine or asks you to leave a message with personal information on an answering machine. It never requests prepaid credit cards and never asks for information about your passport, health card or driver’s licence.
· Check for news alerts at the CRA website, where you can find three warnings put out this year.
· Adopt a suspicious attitude to any calls claiming to be from the government. Ignore threats and take time to do research before responding.