Niagara-on-the-Lake resident Pauline Charlton is fed up with receiving fraudulent phone calls.
The recently retired York University professor of psychology, who lives on Charlotte Street, said she receives as many as three phone calls to her home phone daily from different scam companies.
Charlton called The Lake Report Friday afternoon after receiving a call, during which she was told her social insurance number was compromised.
“It was about 2-2:30. I answered the phone, and there was a recording — a robot voice. The voice was very low. It was like RoboCop,” she said.
The recording claimed she had make a fraudulent action and the Canada Revenue Agency had suspended her SIN because of it.
“(The voice said) if I want to know more detail, press one. Of course, I didn’t press one,” she said.
She and her husband are very protective of their privacy, and although she knew it was a fraudulent call, she’s worried the types of calls are “getting more and more sophisticated.”
“The recording sounded very genuine. They have this spiel of you know ‘your call may be recorded’ etc., etc.”
Charlton has received calls from a number of different scammers. Some claim she’s committed fraud, while others are fishing for information, saying her Microsoft software is compromised. Others claim that money was fraudulently withdrawn from her bank account.
“In January, Christmas time, there’s a lot of Visa calls that somebody made ($300) a charge on (my) Visa. I knew it was fraudulent, but I still went and inquired to the bank,” Charlton said.
The bank immediately recognized the signs, she said, and told her they’d had similar inquiries.
“So it’s not just one person (getting calls). It’s a lot of people.”
She said a friend who lives in Hamilton also received a call from someone claiming to be with the Canada Revenue Agency, at which point she sought legal advice.
“She was so scared she went to see her lawyer. And I’m sure she had to pay for it,” Charlton said.
“This is not something people should treat as funny, because after a while the genuine phone calls get confused.”
She said it comes down to judgment of what is and isn’t fraud.
“The voice is a real human voice … they claim they are the bank, and then it donned on me — they call on a Saturday afternoon after 6 p.m. And I said to myself, ‘Why would Scotiabank be calling me at this hour? Then I put down the phone and then I called them back. They went through the same spiel and then the human voice answered, and she said, ‘Scotiabank, what is your account number?’ And then I said, ‘Just a minute, this doesn’t sound right. You are calling me and you are asking me my account number.’”
Charlton said she’s tried blocking numbers, but the calls still come, even though her number is unlisted.
“Computer and phone fraud, it’s just unbelievable. And the invasion of privacy.”
She recalls when she was extorted by email, too.
“Let’s go back a year ago … like October, November I got an email. They said they had intercepted my email from the router and they were holding my email (account) for ransom.”
The email accused her of watching pornographic material and threatened to expose her picture on the web if she didn’t send ransom money.
After receiving the email she phoned the police, who traced the call to Chile.
“But they said there’s no point chasing after it and I know that there’s software they just bounce it all over the world.”
Emails like that can take a heavy toll on people’s mental health, Charlton said.
“I mean if (someone) had boyfriends who had nude pictures of (them). Well, for somebody like that it would be horrible. I mean what does your husband say? That’s why they ask you for ransom.”
She said her friend going to a lawyer is a good example of someone who got worried.
“It’s real psychological terrorism,” Charlton said.
For people who use email every day, scams have become “the new normal.”
“I talk with my teaching assistant and I talk with a number of people who are younger than me and they are the type that are always on their email, and they say, ‘Oh that’s OK, ignore it. I get it every day.’”
Charlton said she thinks scam callers are targeting areas they know have a higher population of seniors, like Niagara-on-the-Lake.
Though she said she’s never fallen for a scam call, she thinks something needs to be done about the problem.
“Microsoft will never call you like that. Revenue Canada would never call you like that. But the bank might call you sometimes if you’re friendly with the bank manager … but I know the person, I recognize her voice. So after a while, what is real, and what is unreal? If someone from Scotiabank calls me who is not the one I recognize, I will easily hang up or ignore it. But maybe there is real business or maybe there’s a real charge on my card that hasn’t been approved. Your reality starts to be blurred.”
“It takes a little bit for you to catch up on the clues, right? So some of the clues may be ‘Why is my bank calling me at this time of day.’”
She thinks there are people who probably have been duped, but are afraid or embarrassed to come forward.
“I’m sure there are people who might give into it, and thought to themselves, ‘Oh that is so stupid,’ and they wouldn’t report it. I mean my girlfriend, she didn’t report it, she just told her friend how stupid she was (to go to the lawyer).
Her friend didn’t end up giving any money away, she said.
“But the thing is, it really impugns on your mental health. Most people would like to think of the world as a caring world. A world where people have each other. You believe in positive behaviours and you’re grateful that you have good friends and a good environment. Like Niagara-on-the-Lake, look how beautiful it is. But those types of things put you into a negative mode. And I only get a couple a day. Some people may get a lot more if they have a lot of social connections.”
Charlton said the increasing volume of scam calls has the potential to make human instinct “more negative than positive.”
“Our brain has this mechanism, called the amygdala, it’s in our brain, and it produces fear. So this type of phone call will induce fear.”
“The other day the Royal Ontario Museum called, and I thought it was one of those fraudulent calls. And I just said one word, ‘hello’ … I wasn’t friendly to them at all. And it’s an organization I’ve been supporting for many years. It makes people become so insensitive.”
She said some people might be worried for their safety at home, too.
“It changes the way we think,” she said. “Even if you don’t know it, your brain will turn on those hormones and you will be under stress. And what does stress cause people? Bad health … even cancer and depression. It attacks your belief system,” Charlton said. “And also makes you depressed. You’re helpless.”
She said the worrying thing is there isn’t anything people can do about it.
“Even if you call the police like I did, there’s nothing they can do.”
“As they get more and more sophisticated, it gets to a point where you wonder whether you should have a phone or not. But a phone is essential, it saves people’s lives. You have to have it.”
She worries for people who aren’t as tech-savvy receiving the calls or emails.
“I think especially in NOTL we have a lot of older people here and they are not as well-versed in new technology. You know, it’s difficult. A lot of people say, ‘I have a son or grandchild (who is) really good at computers and I can talk to them’ but not everybody has that.”
Charlton said she doesn’t know how to make the calls stop, but would like to see some solutions besides blocking the numbers.
“Blocking them is not going to help,” she said.
“I want to fight back. I just don’t think this is something people should tolerate.”
A list of scams by medium (phone, email, text, etc.) can be found at www.antifraudcentre-centreantifraude.ca/scams-fraudes/medium-moyen-eng.htm