Building Better Fences: How We Can Protect Ourselves Against High-Tech Cyber Criminals

Cyber Fraud

The five most common scams perpetrated toward those over the age of 60 include investment, romance, service, grandparent and recovery scams. But experts are finding ways to fight back. Photo: athima tongloom/Getty Images

When you see how adept modern criminals have become at using technology to trick us into sharing our personal information, it’s no wonder many of us experience a ripple of anxiety every time we shop or bank online.

These modern day fraud artists are filling up our email inboxes and peppering our texts and social media with deceptive shopping websites (phishing); phoney emails from reputable organizations (like the CRA or Amazon); or circulating deep-fake social media videos of celebrities endorsing products. With each attempt, they’re trying to create confusion, panic or urgency, so that we let our guard down and fall prey to their scams.

The frauds and scams landscape has certainly become a lot more sophisticated and threatening since the seemingly quaint early days of fake lotteries, illegal investment schemes and promises of great wealth from Nigerian Princes.

This very unsettling example of the high-tech version of the old grandparent scam shows what we’re up against. The CBC reported that a 75-year-old woman received a call purportedly from her grandson, asking her to provide some cash to help him out of a jam.  She understandably thought that  voice on the other end was her grandson’s – the crooks had used technology to clone his voice and ask for emergency aid. By the time she realized what was happening it was too late, she had already given the crooks $7,000.


Fraud Prevention Month

“Fraud is a huge issue in Canada,” says Jeff Horncastle, communications officer at the North-Bay, Ont.-based Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre (CAFC), the national reporting and data centre for any kind of scam. The CAFC’s prevention initiatives include running the Fraud Prevention Month awareness campaign each March along with with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Competition Bureau. This year marks the 20th edition of the event.

Besides educating Canadians on all the various scams making the rounds, the CAFC shares its massive database of all fraud-related information to help the RCMP and local police in their efforts to bust criminal rings. And because many of these illegal operations are run out of foreign countries, the CAFC can provide vital information to international law enforcement agencies as well.

Horncastle suggests that technology, specifically Artificial Intelligence, is the reason Canada is seeing an increase in fraud and cybercrime. In 2022, the CAFC received fraud and cybercrime reports totalling $530 million in victim losses. In 2023, that number had risen to $550 million, with investment scams, phishing and romance scams leading the way. 

The following are the five most common scams aimed at Canadians 60 and over, as well as the financial losses incurred. For an up-to-date list of the hundreds of scams currently making the rounds, visit the CAFC’s website.

  • Investment: Any solicitation for investments into false or deceptive investment opportunities, including cryptocurrency. (Reported losses in 2023: $110,698,593)
  • Romance: A scammer builds a relationship with a person over social media or a dating app, and then starts asking for money either for fake emergencies or dodgy investments. (Reported losses in 2023: $23,109,796)
  • Service: Someone calls or emails offering air-duct cleaning, cheap cellphone service, low-interest credit cards or technical support. The goal is to get access to your banking details. (Reported financial loss in 2023: $10,150,980).
  • Grandparent/Emergency Scam: Scammers claim to be someone you know and tell you they need money immediately to pay bail, lawyers fees, hospital fees, ambulance fees. (Reported losses in 2023: $8,746,577).
  • Recovery: If you’ve been a victim of a scam, scammers may target you again with a promise to get your money back. (Reported losses in 2023: $5,238,211)


Reporting the Crime

Horncastle believes the number of victims and financial losses are much higher, simply because victims don’t alway report these crimes. “The person might be ashamed to discuss what happened. They don’t want anybody to know. They may not even tell their family members.” Another reason for not reporting might be that they don’t see the benefit: “What’s the point of reporting if I’m not going to get my money back?”

If you’ve been a target, Horncastle urges you to report. “Whether it’s a phone call a phishing email or text message, it could all be valuable information.” You can report by logging into the RCMP’s Online Reporting System or by calling 1-888-495-8501. 

The prevalence and complexity of the scams, however, don’t mean that we are helpless victims fighting a losing battle against savvy high-tech criminals.

Adrian White, director of financial crimes at the Toronto-based Canadian Bankers Association, doesn’t accept that we’re in a “losing battle.” The banks, he feels, are doing everything they can to to limit the risk. “I think we’re matching any increased threat with increased security.”

He meets regularly with bank representatives and law enforcement representatives to address ways of battling financial-related cyber frauds and scams.

And while the criminals may indeed be getting smarter, White feels the banks and law enforcement are constantly developing new techniques and making efforts to keep ahead of the latest frauds, ensuring a safe online environment where we can shop or bank with confidence.  


Cyber Fraud
One expert suggests that technology, specifically Artificial Intelligence, is the reason Canada is seeing an increase in fraud and cybercrime. Photo: athima tongloom/Getty Images


Preventing Fraud is a Shared Responsibility

White suggests that over the two-decade span since Fraud Prevention Month started,  we have seen a lot of new practices adopted to mitigate online fraud, such as multi-factor authentication. When you perform a bank transaction like transferring money to your granddaughter account or taking out a loan, “your payment provider is going to provide a security code that you would need to enter in order to continue the process.”

If you keep your electronic devices up to date with the right software, if you’re downloading the right apps, if you are using the system securely, and you’re taking advantage of multi-factor authentication, “you should be able to transfer money electronically confidently and without fear.”

Creating awareness is the best front-line defence against scams, says White. The CBA offers many online resources and toolkits to help us create a line of defence against the criminals. 

The Fraud Prevention Toolkit for Older Adults identifies common scams, breaking them down offering ways to spot them. It also provides an invaluable checklist explaining how to protect your devices with strong passwords, how to strengthen your social media settings, which apps you should avoid, and how to protect yourself when shopping or banking online.

The CBA also offers toolkits to help you to protect yourself from fraud while online ( Cyber Security Fraud Kit ) as well as one for recent arrivals (The Cyber Security Fraud Kit for Newcomers to Canada) – a group that unfortunately poses an inviting target for unscrupulous fraudsters.

White says these programs are trying to get people “to pay attention and make sure they have all fences up” when you’re banking online.

He calls protecting yourself against cyber fraud is a “shared responsibility” – doing your bit to help will also help reduce fraud by “making sure that there’s no weakness on your end of the transaction.”