Rise in online fraud cases concerns local financial institutions

LITTLE CURRENT – Reports of rising incidents of online and telephone fraud have been reported to The Expositor by a number of Island financial institutions. The Expositor caught up with a representative of the TD Bank, whose local offices include a branch in Little Current and Espanola.

“Every year, thousands of Canadians fall victim to credit card and debit card fraud, telemarketing scams, identity theft, online fraud, phishing and vishing scams and insurance fraud,” confirmed TD Bank manager Pam Stephens. “Since March of last year, millions of Canadians have been isolating at home, restricted from seeing friends and family as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. For many, that meant spending more time online: shopping, sharing on social media, working, or looking for work.”

She pointed out that “unfortunately, that combination of social isolation mixed with increased online activities likely left many Canadians feeling more vulnerable to financial fraud.”

Thankfully, although they are running on different hours these days and have restricted access, the TD branch in Little Current isn’t going anywhere. “We get a lot of calls asking if we are leaving the Island,” said Ms. Stephens. “To be clear, we have no plans to leave. Our business on Manitoulin is very strong and we have no plans to go anywhere.” The recent facelift of the Little Current building with TD Bank branding is solid evidence of that commitment.

Ms. Stephens supplied that according to a TD Bank survey for Fraud Prevention Month, more than half of Canadians polled (56 percent) reported feeling vulnerable to financial fraud. “That marks a significant increase over 2020,” she pointed out, “when only 13 percent of Canadians surveyed reported feeling vulnerable to financial fraud.” That’s quite a jump.

A strong majority of survey respondents (84 percent) said they believe social isolation contributes to financial fraud vulnerability, while more than three quarters (78 percent) of respondents said that they have been targeted by fraudsters in the last year.

“For months, the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre has been warning Canadians that fraudsters are exploiting the COVID-19 crisis to facilitate fraud and cybercrime,” continued Ms. Stephens. “Fraudsters have targeted people claiming to be able to help them repay the Canada Emergency Response Benefit, claiming to be collecting money for charitable organizations, even tricking people into paying for counterfeit COVID-19 vaccines.”

Those frauds have come at a huge cost to vulnerable Canadians.

“For the first 30 days of 2021, the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre reported Canadians lost more than $10 million to fraud,” said Ms. Stephens. “That’s a 42 percent increase over the same period last year—with more than 3,300 reported fraud victims.”

Those fraud victims are more than just statistics.

“These are people we know,” said Ms. Stephens. “A lot of the time people who are on a fixed income, with very limited resources, come in to see us after they have fallen victim. They may have sent money that came from their line of credit, money that they didn’t have—and now they have to somehow come up with that money.”

The distressing thing for Island financial institution employees is that there is little to nothing they can do once the money has been sent. “We can’t just pull that money back,” said Ms. Stephens. “We have to tell them it is gone.”

While front line workers have policy and bank regulations to fall back on, the distress of the victims takes its toll, especially among seniors who may have less comprehension of the internet and the speed of how the digital world operates.

Ms. Stephens said that according to the result of the TD survey, women are more likely to see loneliness and social isolation as a factor in feeling vulnerable (90 percent) while 78 percent of men agree.

When it comes to isolation leading to vulnerability, those in the Generation X demographic (those born in the 1960s and the early 1980s) were most likely (89 percent) to identify loneliness as a key component of vulnerability, higher than Generation Z (those born between 1990s and the early 2010s) at 74 percent or millennial respondents (1981 to 1996) at 79 percent, according to the TD survey. Nearly nine out of 10 Canadians (89 percent) would agree that’s the case, while 81 percent stated that Canadians are just too busy to recognize the signs of a financial scam.

The TD survey found that a majority (78 percent) of Canadians report that they have been a target of at least one type of attempted fraud in the last year, including attempts that were spotted early and avoided.

During the writing of this piece, The Expositor received two cellphone text messages that were fraudulent, one purportedly from Scotiabank, which was easily spotted as fraud due to not having an account at that institution, but a second referenced a Costco cashback which could easily have pulled the unsuspecting recipient into clicking on the link. The phony Costco text offered a $287.58 cashback, which in many cash-strapped households would be very welcome in these pandemic stressed times. The phony Costco text even helpfully warned that “data rates may apply.”

In the last year, Canadians were most likely to be contacted by fraudsters via phone (53 percent), with 36 percent of respondents  receiving the so-called Canada Revenue Agency (or CRA) scam, specifically. The CRA scam typically involves a fraudster who purports to be from the CRA to alert a potential victim that they have unpaid taxes that need to be paid immediately, or they will be arrested. The Expositor receives this call on at least a weekly, if not daily, basis.

Phishing or email scams targeted 47 percent of survey respondents and fraudulent text messages were received by 40 percent of respondents.

The TD Bank was not eager to share its own policies and procedures aimed at helping to deal with frauds. “The fraudsters are very sophisticated and will adapt their approaches to any information they can get,” said Ms. Stephens. But she pointed out there are several things Canadians are doing to help protect themselves from fraud. Those include: 79 percent who do not give personal information to someone who calls them and claims to be from their credit card company, bank, or the CRA; 74 percent never click on a link in an email that is unfamiliar to them; 72 percent do not send money to someone they met online; 60 percent shred their documents before discarding paperwork; and 57 percent pay attention to media and information from their bank to help keep them well-informed.

“If you are looking for ways to better protect yourselves and your loved ones from falling victim to fraud, TD offers the following tips and advice: be cautious when it comes to your finances and verify if the request is real—if you receive a phone call claiming to be from a government agency or financial institution requesting confidential information, it could be fraud. Take time to research and verify whether it’s real, call the number on the back of your debit card or use the organization’s website to find authentic contact information.”

One caveat to calling the institution back is to wait a few moments after hanging up and ensure there is a dial tone before you start to dial. Fraudsters have learned to exploit the pause between when someone receiving an incoming call hangs up and the end of the connection for the caller. If you simply hang up and immediately begin to dial you may not be calling who you think you are. Wait a couple of minutes, that dial tone you hear could be fake—yes, they are that clever.

Have conversations with family and friends, suggests Ms. Stephens “Help protect your loved ones by educating them on the most common scams, such as emergency scams that attempts to coerce grandparents into sending money to a grandchild in distress in a foreign country or another province. Don’t fall into the “don’t tell” my parents, my wife, my whoever pleading or admonition from the caller. The idea is to prevent you from discovering the fraud.”

Pay attention to your fraud alerts by using free services like TD Fraud Alerts, or those offered by your financial institution, so that you receive text messages to notify you of suspicious activity on your personal banking accounts.

You should also protect your PIN and passwords. “The only person who should know your passwords and PIN is you,” said Ms. Stephens, “not even your family members. Your bank would never ask you for this information. Don’t ever give out personal confidential information, whether in person, over the phone or online.”

Ms. Stephens also advises people to check their statements, online accounts and banking apps regularly. “Taking these steps will help alert you more quickly to fraudulent transactions,” she said. “Money management apps, like the TD MySpend app, can be helpful tools and provide notifications of spending transactions in real-time, making it easier for you to recognize fraudulent transactions fast.”

“At TD, we also offer a number of fraud education resources on our website and TD Stories,” continues Ms. Stephens. “Customers can also use TD MySpend, located within the TD app, which provides real-time notifications of spend transactions.”

Or check with your own financial institution’s website to discover what they offer.

It may take a village to raise a child, but it can take an Island to protect the vulnerable.