Tax scams have been around, probably, for about as long as Canada has had a tax system. They also have a tendency to proliferate at certain times of the year — often during tax return filing and assessment season, when it wouldn’t necessarily strike taxpayers as unusual to receive a communication purporting to be from the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA), with a message regarding that person’s taxes — whether in relation to a tax refund or an amount of tax owing.

Most tax scams operate in one of two ways. In one, the taxpayer is promised money, in the form of a tax refund or credit, and required to log into or click on a link to a (fraudulent) website in order to collect the monies allegedly owed to them. The link leads, not to a federal government website, but to a “dummy” site very closely resembling the actual CRA website. The taxpayer must then, in order to have his or her “refund” processed, provide personal and financial information which can then be used by the tax scammer.

The other kind of scam informs the taxpayer, usually by a telephone call, that he or she owes money to the government, and that payment must be made forthwith. A failure to pay, the taxpayer is told, will mean damage to his or her credit rating, seizure of his or her assets, cancellation of his or her passport and/or social insurance card or other government-issued identification, deportation, or imprisonment. Further, such payment must be made only by bitcoin, wire transfer, or pre-paid credit card. This type of fraud has become so ubiquitous, in fact, that many businesses which provide money-transfer services post warnings on their premises to would-be users of the need to be aware of the fraud risk. And, needless to say, both the demand and the destination to which that money is sent are fraudulent, having nothing to do with any government department or authority.

The latter approach has been used very successfully in recent years to cheat Canadian taxpayers — often those who are particularly vulnerable by reason of age, infirmity, or lack of familiarity with Canadian laws. Recent media reports indicate that 60,000 Canadian taxpayers have made complaints about receiving such calls, and that more than $10,000,000 has been paid by victims of this particular scheme.

What’s even more concerning is that the perpetrators of the scam are becoming more sophisticated. Software used now has the ability to show, on call display, a false phone number that appears to be Canadian in origin — showing, for instance, an area code which would indicate that the call is originating from the Ottawa area. Consequently, it would be easy for the recipient of such a call to be reassured that the call was indeed originating from the CRA’s head office in Ottawa.

While Canadians are contacted every day by would-be fraud artists, there also seems to be something about a (purported) communication from the tax authorities which makes people especially vulnerable. Perhaps it is the fact that most Canadians are unfamiliar with the workings of a system with which they interact, in most cases, only once a year. It’s also possible that they are apprehensive about the real (or rumoured) powers of the CRA or the federal government to cause them grief, and therefore suggestible. Whatever the reason, it’s often the case that even those who would normally be able to discern that what they are being told doesn’t make sense seem to suspend their disbelief when dealing (by phone or by e-mail) with someone who purports to represent the tax authorities.

There are, in fact, several things about such a phone call that should alert the recipient to the fact that it’s not legitimate. First of all, if a taxpayer does owe money to the CRA, he or she will be first advised of that fact by mail and never by telephone — generally in his or her Notice of Assessment for a tax return filed. Second, the CRA would never suggest or require that a taxpayer send funds to the Agency by bitcoin, wire transfer, or by using a prepaid credit card. Any payment of money owed to the CRA is made online, through the CRA website, through the taxpayer’s financial institution (in person or online), or by mailing a cheque to the Agency. Finally, any suggestion that the CRA would (or could) cancel a taxpayer’s passport or other government issued ID for failure to make payment is simply ludicrous.

There is almost no limit to the number and variety of scams and phishing attempts that are carried out using the CRA’s name and new ones, which appear frequently, are usually identified on the CRA website at www.cra-arc.gc.ca/scrty/frdprvntn/menu-eng.html. Unfortunately, many such scams originate outside Canada, limiting the ability of the CRA and law enforcement authorities to monitor or stop them. For the most part, therefore, the onus will fall on individual taxpayers to protect themselves, through a healthy degree of caution, and even skepticism.

The CRA suggests that, in order to avoid becoming a victim of such scams, taxpayers should keep the following general guidelines in mind.

The CRA will never:

send an e-mail asking the taxpayer to divulge personal or financial information;
ask for personal information of any kind by email or text message;
request payment by prepaid credit cards;
give taxpayer information to another person, unless formal authorization is provided by the taxpayer; or
leave personal information on an answering machine.
When in doubt, a taxpayer should ask him or herself the following:

Did I sign up to receive online mail through My Account, My Business Account, or Represent a Client?
Did I provide my email address on my income tax and benefit return to receive mail online?
Am I expecting more money from the CRA?
Does this sound too good to be true?
Is the requester asking for information I would not provide in my tax return?
Is the requester asking for information I know the CRA already has on file for me?
In all instances, the recipient of a call which purports to be from the CRA should hang up and call the CRA Individual Income Tax Enquiries line at 1-800-959-8281. Service agents at that line will be able to access the taxpayer’s tax records and provide information on whether the taxpayer does indeed owe any funds to the CRA. As well, taxpayers who receive what seems to be a suspicious communication should report that by the calling Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre at 1-888-495-8501.

If the worst has already happened, and the taxpayer has been scammed, the Anti-Fraud Center has the following advice.

Step 1: Gather all information about the fraud. This includes documents, receipts, copies of emails, and/or text messages.

Step 2: Report the incident to local law enforcement. This ensures that police in that jurisdiction are aware of what scams are targeting their residents and businesses. Keep a log of all your calls and record all file or occurrence numbers.

Step 3: Contact the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre toll free at 1-888-495-8501 or through the Fraud Reporting System (FRS).

Step 4: Report the incident to the financial institution where the money was sent (e.g., money service business such as Western Union or MoneyGram, bank or credit union, credit card company, or internet payment service provider).

Step 5: If the fraud took place online through Facebook, eBay, a classified ad site such as Kijiji, or a dating website, be sure to report the incident directly to the website. These details can be found under “report abuse” or “report an ad.”

Step 6: Victims of identity fraud should place flags on all their accounts and report to both credit bureaus, Equifax and TransUnion.

Finally, the Centre also warns that victims of fraud are often targeted a second or third time with the promise of recovering money previously lost. Their advice is never to send money to recover money. Where money has been sent, especially by bitcoin, the chances of recovering it are virtually nil.

Ironically, the extent to which most individuals are now comfortable transacting their tax and financial affairs online or over the phone, and the speed and anonymity of such transactions has made it easier in many ways for fraud artists to succeed. As always, the best defence against becoming a victim of such fraud artists is by refusing to provide personal or financial information, and especially never to make any kind of payment, whether by phone, e-mail or online, without first verifying the legitimacy of the request by contacting the CRA directly.

Or, as stated succinctly in a recent federal government statement on the subject: ”[O]ne point needs to be made crystal clear: anyone purporting to represent CRA to ask for money over the phone is a fraud.”

The information presented is only of a general nature, may omit many details and special rules, is current only as of its published date, and accordingly cannot be regarded as legal or tax advice. Please contact our office for more information on this subject and how it pertains to your specific tax or financial situation.