The strange calls started in December.
Hello, I’d say.
Hello, they’d say.
Then, the expectant silence. “Why did you call me?” they’d ask.
It took me a few days to realize my number was being spoofed, likely used as a Trojan horse to deliver an unscrupulous message: The Canada Revenue Agency is on their way to arrest you for unpaid taxes. You’ve won a vacation and need to pay a deposit to secure the reservation. You have not completed all the necessary immigration forms and risk deportation.
“There are millions and billions of these hooks in the water,” says John Lawford, executive director of the Public Interest Advocacy Center. “And if they get somebody to press one, one out of a thousand calls, that’s good enough.”
I do not know what my number had been hijacked for, but in December and January, people from Toronto, British Columbia and New York returned calls I had never made. Most were understanding, but some were angry: “stop Playing on my line b —-,” one texted. Another left me an annoyed voicemail to tell me I needed to fix this situation.
If only it was that easy.
A customer service representative at Telus sympathized. In the last few years, this has been happening more. When spoofers find a number they like, they’ll use it until it runs out of steam. A CRTC spokesperson said that the volume of nuisance calls made with one spoofed number is often in the thousands, which renders it less appealing once it creates “too much attention from network operators, call filtering app providers and regulators.”
In 2021, the Canadian Anti-Fraud Center received 76 complaints from people like me. It suggested I change my voicemail message to let people know what was going on. It also said that scammers switch numbers frequently.
I had two choices: Wait it out or change my number.
Spoofing is when a caller “deliberately falsifies the information transmitted to your caller ID display” to hide their true identity, explains the Canadian Anti-Fraud Center. Spoofed calls are not just a nuisance, they are “gateways for criminals,” that erode trust in Canada’s telecommunications system, CRTC chairperson Ian Scott said last November. Sometimes phone numbers are spoofed to target a specific region. Or a scammer might spoof a number of a company or government agency that people are more likely to trust.
“If you answer, they use scam scripts to try to steal your money or valuable personal information,” the center noted.
The anti-fraud center recorded nearly 17,000 complaints from people on the receiving end of these calls last year. More than 5,000 of them were defrauded of $ 39 million. Call spoofing is not illegal in Canada, but the fraudulent activity is. The anti-fraud center, which is jointly run by several groups including the RCMP, does not investigate complaints, but acts as a reporting center and repository for information.
Trying to stop the relentless tide of telephone scams is a complicated problem.
The CRTC has the National Do Not Call List and a series of rules about unsolicited telecommunications – notably that you have to accurately identify yourself, and not use automatic dialing devices unless you have the consent of the person you are calling. Violations can result in citations and fines, but MPs questioned the imbalance between the large number of complaints and the relatively small number of fines at a parliamentary committee on phone fraud in 2020.
At the same hearing, the CRTC’s Scott said that the majority of legitimate businesses follow the rules. The challenge is that the people who use the phone system to take advantage of Canadians do not care about CRTC rules, they use technology to hide their identities, and they are not necessarily based in Canada.
The US has more firepower with the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, says Lawford. In addition to government penalties, the act allows individuals to bring their own lawsuits. “There are huge fines and private class actions against these folks,” he says. The US also has the Truth in Caller ID rules, which prohibit “any person or entity from knowingly spoofing caller identification information with the intent to defraud, cause harm, or wrongfully obtain anything of value.”
In 2021 the Federal Communications Commission fined two Texas-based telemarketers $ 225 million (US) for making one billion robocalls, many of them spoofed, to sell short-term health insurance plans.
“They’re hunting and running with big sticks in the United States,” Lawford says.
The CRTC and the telecommunications industry have been battling unwanted robocalls for years. In March 2020, a Rogers vice president called it an “arms race, with each side continuously upgrading their efforts.”
In 2018 the CRTC mandated that service providers had to block obviously illegitimate calls from numbers that had more than 15 digits or did not conform to a “dialable number.” More recently, the CRTC and the FCC issued a joint North American salvo called STIR / SHAKEN to fight spoofed calls.
The mouthful of an acronym (Secure Telephony Identity Revisited / Secure Handling of Asserted information using tokens) went into effect in Canada in November 2021. The whole idea it to make caller ID more reliable, since spoofers hide behind fake numbers. With this system, the originating service provider validates whether the calling party is authorized to use the phone number, and passes that information on.
“What it’s trying to do is authenticate each step of the phone call,” says Paul Burbank, a corporate lawyer who specializes in telecommunications.
Legitimate calls will have a “verified” label or a green check mark on the call display depending on the provider.
The framework is mandated but not all phones or wireless networks are compatible yet. The process only applies to Internet Protocol (IP) based voice calls. Burbank says there are other solutions for the traditional network, but increasingly, the large volume of nefarious calls happen over IP networks. “This will relate to a very substantial amount of traffic in Canada,” he says.
The CRTC hopes that as STIR / SHAKEN becomes more widespread, people will be more confident in answering their phone, “which will also benefit businesses, health-care providers and non-profit organizations and charities that sometimes have problems reaching Canadians,” spokesperson Isabella Maestri writes in an email.
Burbank says the sense in the industry is that volume of unwanted calls will gradually, but significantly decline over time. “I think that’s going to be a very good thing for consumers, and it’s going to start to restore trust.”
John Lawford says a neutral, agreed-upon standard to judge the trustworthiness of calls in North America is a good idea. But he would like to see more co-ordination between the CRTC, the RCMP and local police forces to combat phone fraud.
In that 2020 parliamentary committee, experts noted that many spam calls are international, which raises jurisdictional challenges. In his talks with the RCMP, industry specialists and victims, Lawford has come to believe that more than half of these calls originate in Canada, but he stresses more research is needed.
I asked Telus if it could determine where my spoofer was operating. Canada does not have any “anti-spoofing” or call traceback legislation, the company said. “Without this, TELUS is unable to compel other service providers to take part in a traceback and, to the extent that we could find the source of these calls, we would still require CRTC direction to take action.”
My phone has been quiet lately. Nobody has texted me to advise me for a call, so maybe my number has been retired. But a phone is always ringing somewhere. The spoofers do not quit. They only move on.
Protect yourself from phone scams
Some advice from the Canadian Anti-Fraud Center:
- If you’re wary of an unknown number, do not answer the phone.
- Never give out personal information like account numbers, your social insurance number, or passwords if you are suspicious of a call.
- If an unsolicited caller or recording asks you to hit a button, hang up. Scammers sometimes use this trick to identify potential targets.
- Verify that the organization, company or charity that is supposedly calling you is legitimate. You can verify charities with the Canada Revenue Agency. Look online for contact information for companies and call them back yourself to check on the request.
- If you get a call from someone who claims to be in trouble, talk to friends and family to confirm the situation.
- Talk to your phone company about call-blocking tools they may have.
- If you have been a victim of fraud, contact your local police as soon as possible. Contact your relevant financial institution.
- You can report scam calls to the Canadian Anti-Fraud Center, which keeps data to assist police, watch for trends, and carry out prevention work.
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