Almost all of us have, at least once, received some of those well-known spam or scam calls that we just love to hate. Among the callers and/or their subjects:
- “free” vacations
- “Rachel from cardholder services”
- “Service Canada” or the “Canada Revenue Agency” re taxes and/or your Social Insurance Number (SIN)
- “Microsoft Windows support”
- the mysterious COVID-related “This is a test call. Time to stay home. Stay safe and stay home.”
Over the last few years, I’ve noticed an upward trend in the number of unwanted calls we’ve received on both our home and cell phones. However, over the last year or two, they have increased significantly, most of those calls being from scammers, often operating outside of Canada and often spoofing the caller ID info that comes up, and by fall 2020, I decided enough is enough. It’s time to remind you of some important things regarding unwanted or unexpected phone calls or texts.
- Don’t answer calls from names/numbers you don’t recognize, or names/numbers from which you’re not expecting any calls. If it’s important, the caller will leave a message on your voicemail or answering machine. These days, you can’t even trust numbers from your own exchange/prefix, as scammers and other unwanted callers often spoof their caller ID and use the same exchange as the person they’re calling, leading the recipient to believe that someone local is calling them. If you see a local-looking number on caller ID, but without a legit-looking name, it’s not a good idea to answer. Also, absolutely do not answer any calls that have your own number on the caller ID – it is virtually impossible to knowingly call yourself using conventional means.
- Don’t ever give out any personal information over the phone when a person or organization has called you unexpectedly or “out of the blue”. Do not give them, in whole or in part, any of the following:
*your social insurance number (SIN)
*your provincial health card number
*your date of birth (and/or your place of birth)
*any digits (or the PINs) on your credit card(s) or ATM/debit card(s)
*any digits on your cheques
*any of your bank account information
*your street address, mailing address and/or email address
- Government agencies, especially the Canada Revenue Agency, will never use telephone, email or texting/SMS to request personal information, payment(s) or to threaten legal action. If you actually do owe any money to the CRA, or if there really is some legal issue involving your social insurance number, they will notify you by sending you a letter via Canada Post. Also, government agencies will never request payment in the form of gift cards or cryptocurrency (e.g. Bitcoin) – the CRA’s accepted payment options are usually listed on the letter that was mailed to you. If ever in doubt, call the CRA or Service Canada directly, using the phone number(s) listed on the letter or on the agencies’ respective official websites.
- Just like number three above, financial institutions will never call, email or text you unexpectedly and ask for personal information. If ever in doubt, call the financial institution directly – their phone numbers are usually printed on the back of your ATM card or your credit card(s), and on your monthly statements. Also, keep a close eye on your transaction history in your bank account and any and all credit card accounts – if you see any purchases or payments that you don’t recognize, call your bank or your credit card issuer ASAP, using the phone numbers printed on the back of your card(s).
- If you answer the phone and the caller asks if you can hear them, do not say anything after they ask – just hang up/end the call immediately. If you do say anything beyond “Hello”, the caller can and often will use recordings of your voice for fraudulent purposes, especially if you say “yes” or “no”.
- If you get an unexpected call or in-person visit regarding anything related to your home or its utility services (e.g. electricity, gas, HVAC, appliances), do not give the caller/visitor any personal information at all, do not verify any of your personal information, and in particular, do not give them (or let them see) any info from any of your utility bills. If you’re a renter/tenant, or your home was built before 1990-ish, tell the caller/canvasser that a) you don’t own the house, b) you’re a tenant, c) all the utility bills are in the landlord’s name and they go directly to the landlord, and d) the landlord owns all the appliances and the HVAC stuff. Tell the caller/canvasser that the landlord’s home/office is off-site, and that you’re not authorized to give them your landlord’s name or contact info.
- Don’t ever respond to, or act on, any unexpected emails or text messages (SMS) that ask you to click a link, open an attachment, and/or provide any personal information. Even if it appears to be from someone you know and/or trust, be very careful – call the person directly or meet him/her face-to-face (in person or on video chat) to verify the legitimacy of his/her message(s), and don’t use any other means of contact.
- Don’t dial any digits that claim to remove your number from calling lists and/or put your number on a do-not-call list – in most cases, doing so only tells the calling party that your number is active and was answered by a real person.
- Don’t waste your money on cheap “call zapping” devices for land line phones, especially the ones that simply generate “out of service” tones when you answer. Most auto-dialers/predictive dialers today ignore those tones, plus they often know the difference between the real thing (i.e. the “out of service” sequence generated by your telco) and “artificial” tones generated by equipment at the call recipient’s location.
- Do not answer any call containing the letter “V” and a string of digits in the name portion of the caller ID. These are definitely robocalls, flooding our networks via the “Vdial” system, and there is absolutely no reason to answer these calls. Even if the phone number on the caller ID appears to be a local number in your area, it’s very likely spoofed.
HOW TO REDUCE OR ELIMINATE UNWANTED CALLS
- .Most newer cell phones have built-in call blocking capability, and many (especially Android and iOS devices) have almost no limit on how many phone numbers can be added to the phone’s block list. Some newer Android devices, notably Google’s Pixel series and others running Android version 10 or higher, have a “Call Screen” feature built into the device’s stock Phone app – this is a very handy feature that uses text-to-speech and speech-to-text conversions to screen incoming calls and weed out unwanted callers, and it doesn’t use any mobile or wi-fi data – all the work is done locally/offline on the device. I have a Pixel 2 XL, currently running Android 11, and between the block list and the Call Screen feature, I very rarely get unwanted calls on my ‘droid, or at least the unwanted callers don’t reach a live me.
- Many home phone (“land line”) providers now offer various call blocking and screening services. These include block lists, challenges (live callers must give their name or dial a specific digit to get through) and allow lists.
- Some newer land line phones (corded and cordless) and many fax devices are able to block calls from specified numbers. My wife & I have been using a couple of models of Panasonic cordless phones, including the one seen at the start of this post, for pretty much our entire marriage, and they can block up to at least thirty numbers. We used to have a Hewlett-Packard multifunction inkjet printer, and its fax could block at least a handful of numbers. Downside with both of these items is that the phones still ring once (land lines’ caller ID data comes in after the first ring), but as soon as the caller ID info comes up and a number on the block list is detected, the phone/fax will cut off the offending caller.
- If you’re technologically inclined and/or can afford the equipment, set up a “PBX” system, i.e. the type of phone system used in most business environments. There are the classic KSU systems, such as those made by Nortel or Mitel, and there are newer IP-based systems, some of which work with the Asterisk platform and use phones from, among other companies, Cisco and Polycom. Look for one that offers an auto-attendant/menus/IVRs – these should pretty much eliminate auto-dialed calls and oandther unwanted calls, without having to manually add offending numbers to a block list.
- I recently purchased what I believe is a powerful device for blocking unwanted calls on land lines – the Digitone ProSeries II. It sells for just over $200 Canadian, and so far, this thing has significantly reduced the number of unwanted calls that ring through to our land line phones. The number seen above, on the Digitone’s display, is a number from St. Paul, Alberta, and the exchange is one of hundreds across Canada that belong to Iristel, who, along with Fibernetics, are responsible, either in whole or in part, for being involved with far too many scam calls and other unwanted calls that originate from out-of-country facilities and target millions of Canadians every day. This photo was taken a couple of hours before I began programming every Fibernetics and Iristel exchange into the Digitone.
Our home phone service is provided by Cogeco, along with our Internet and TV services, and the way the technician re-wired our demarc to accommodate the new service and rid us of big bad Bell, the cable modem/router/ATA connects to the rest of the house’s phone jacks through one in the master bedroom, where the modem was installed. This configuration made it a cinch to properly install the Digitone – the unit is wired in series, between the ATA’s “Line 1” jack and the “master” jack.
The best part of the Digitone box is that, when wired correctly, the phone(s) connected to it do not ring at all, not even once, when a call is blocked. If a caller’s number or name does not match any of the applicable blocking criteria, the phone(s) will ring, starting with the second “telco ring”. The unit does have an allow list, letting as many as 80 user-specified numbers/people get through no problem. Although we may still get the odd unwanted caller here and there in our first little while with the Digitone installed, I think we’re getting closer to eliminating the bother of unwanted calls.
If someone with a non-Canadian phone number wants to reach us by phone, they’ll need to first contact us by other means before we’ll add their number to our allow list.
Completely blocked, except for any “allow-listed” numbers:
-all toll-free numbers
-all non-Canadian numbers
-all exchanges belonging to known carriers of spam/scam calls
-all “Vdial” calls (“V” and a bunch of digits in the name portion of the caller ID)
-all numbers already blocked on our Panasonic phones and our cell phones
-all “000-000-0000” callers
-all area codes and prefixes that start with a zero or one
andOn our allow list so far, we have family members, friends, work phones, and our healthcare providers (doctors, dentist, hospitals etc), people who usually call our home phone number. For the time being, I am allowing “Private” callers, as I often receive legitimate calls from “Private” numbers, usually healthcare professionals on my “care team”. Also for the time being, I have not “blanket blocked” any exchanges in the 613 (eastern Ontario) or 819 (SW Quebec) area codes, except for the bloody Iristel and Fibernetics exchanges. It’s very rare, if not unheard of, for us in Ontario to get a spam/scam call from the Quebec side, especially the 819 – the scammers have probably, for the most part, done their homework and realized that the majority of Quebec residents are francophones, so it’s not as likely that we as Ontarians will get unwanted calls from Quebec numbers.
To wrap up today’s post, I will admit that there are no perfect/bulletproof solutions for telephone users to take back their line(s) from unwanted callers, short of completely ditching any telephone service, be it land line, cell, or VOIP – no matter what technologies/procedures we use, there is still a very small possibility that an unwanted caller will get through, one way or another, once in a blue moon. Using too much blocking/filtering technology, however, runs a rather big risk of many false positives, i.e. legitimate manually-placed calls not reaching you. As for the out-of-country scammers, we’ll have to wait and see, once Big Telecom in Canada finally has STIR/SHAKEN up and running, coast to coast… as of February 2021, they’re still dragging their collective arses and repeatedly delaying it in defiance of the CRTC’s orders, using COVID as their B.S. excuse to not roll out that promising new technology. [facepalm]
Government of Canada services – 1.800.622.6232 (1.800.O.CANADA) or canada.ca
Canada Revenue Agency – 1.800.959.8281
Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre – 1.888.495.8501
Ontario Provincial Police – 1.888.310.1122
Sûreté du Québec (provincial police in Quebec) – 310.4141 or, on cell phones, *4141