Is there a prince in a faraway land that needs your help getting millions of dollars out of the country?
Is the government really contacting you about an unclaimed tax refund?
Did you really did win the lottery and the government has finally tracked you down to help you claim your prize?
If you have email, you've probably received one of these "great news!" messages. The patterns are familiar: A distant relative you've never heard of, a prince from a faraway land or sometimes an investor who wants to send you an outrageous amount of money. Sometimes the emails look legitimate, with familiar brand names and email addresses that appear almost official.
The problem is, these are all examples of common Internet scams.
Scams come in all shapes and sizes, and they target anyone–from the elderly to busy professionals and even tech-savvy millennials. Recent media stories point to a significant rise in debt and tax collection scams, where a person might receive a call threatening jail time or police involvement unless they send money via pre-paid credit cards, or identity theft and impostor scams where your identity may be assumed to obtain credit cards in your name.
In these situations, the personal financial losses can be significant and your credit rating impacted. If you're being asked for unusual information such as personal details or bank account numbers, or to send money to people you don't know, it's usually a giveaway that something is amiss.
Avoid clicking on an email threatening to close your account or the immediate loss of an important service. If you receive an unsolicited email from a service provider that you normally deal with, it's always best for you to call that service provider directly and confirm whether the request is valid.
The reality is that when you get an unsolicited email or call that sounds too good to be true, or the promise of something bigger, chances are it's a scam. To help protect yourself, here are some tips to spot fraud in order to avoid becoming a victim:
Be skeptical – If you get an email from a relative asking for significant funds because they're in trouble overseas, you most likely would have known about this from other trusted persons, such as a parent or partner. And that tax collector threatening to have you arrested? Probably not really the case, as the Canada Revenue Agency will never use threatening or coercive language1, threaten arrest or involve authorities. The key is to try and not act based on your emotions and to do a little research on the claim to verify it.
Talk with family and friends – The elderly and lonely people are often the most targeted in scams. Help protect your family members by educating them on the most common scams, such as using legitimate dating websites to extort money from someone looking for a relationship, or emergency scams that target caring grandparents into sending money to their grandchild in a foreign country.
Verify the story before acting – If you receive an unexpected and too-good-to-be-true cheque, chances are it may be fraudulent. It's always important to know who you're doing business with. If you have any doubts, don't proceed with cashing the cheque.
Beware of the "-ing" – Whether it's "phishing" (soliciting sensitive financial information via email), "spoofing" (delivering malware to your computer), "vishing" (using phone calls to solicit information through conversation), or even cheque fraud that can trick you into wiring or sending money after you receive a cheque – it's always important to be vigilant. In each of these scenarios, exercising caution before providing information or acting on a request is vital.
Learn more and help others – The Government of Canada Competition Bureau's "The Little Black Book of Scams" is a free download that will help you learn more about some of the most prevalent scams currently employed across Canada. You can also report scams to either the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre or the Competition Bureau to help protect your fellow Canadians.