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Bombarded with spam texts? Stats show the problem is getting worse in Canada

5,395 text messages were reported to the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre in 2023
At least once a day, Digvijay Kosamia glances at his vibrating cellphone to check the latest text message he’s received, only to find a “frustrating” message that didn’t originate from someone he knows. A person uses a cellphone in Ottawa on Monday, July 18, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

At least once a day, Digvijay Kosamia glances at his vibrating cellphone to check the latest text he’s received, only to find a “frustrating” message from an unknown number.

Sometimes it’s a notification supposedly from Canada Post about a package that Kosamia didn’t order.

Other times, the message informs him a major bank has frozen his card, complete with the first four digits of the account in question. All he has to do to unlock the card is follow a mysterious URL.

“I don’t think I have fallen for it,” said the Vancouverite, who considers himself pretty technologically savvy.

“But I worry for my wife and my kids. I’m sure they have.”

Kosamia’s experience — he estimates he sometimes gets up to 15 or 20 spam texts a week — is far from unique in Canada. Many say they’re increasingly inundated with spam and fraudulent texts.

The organizations tasked with monitoring spam attempts and enforcing laws against them say the numbers back up that common perception. In particular, messages that involve phishing — an attack where a scammer tries to trick the recipient into clicking a malicious link, downloading malware or sharing sensitive information — are on the rise.

“The calls maybe have reduced,” said Kosamia.

“But the spam messages have increased.”

A multi-million-dollar problem

Last year, 5,395 text messages were reported to the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre, a national police service that gathers intelligence on fraud across Canada and assists local police with enforcement and prevention.

Nearly $24 million was lost to fraud where a text message was the initial method of contact last year, said anti-fraud centre spokesman Jeff Horncastle, noting that marked an increase over 2022.

But those numbers are likely “just a drop in the bucket,” as the centre estimates just five to 10 per cent of fraud victims report incidents.

“Honestly, from what we’re seeing, it’s everybody that’s a target and a lot of it has to do with automation,” Horncastle said.

Canada’s telecommunications regulator, which enforces anti-spam legislation, is also seeing more scams involving text messages.

In the six months leading up to March 31 of this year, the national Spam Reporting Centre received 4,705 complaints through its online form. About a fifth of the complaints were about text messages.

Around 45 per cent of those text-related reports were phishing messages and 13 per cent were other scams, according to the CRTC.

It said reports have increased partly due to the prevalence of employment scams, which begin with text messages containing promises of good pay for a few hours of work per week.

Those often evolve into more serious threats, said Horncastle. He described a frequent scenario where victims, after making a bit of money, are eventually asked to put in some of their own funds to gain favour of the employer. The CRTC noted recipients may also unknowingly become a “mule”— someone who transfers illegally acquired money or goods on behalf of a scammer.

In addition to artificial intelligence playing a role to make spam texts seem more personal, Horncastle said victims often fall for these schemes because the initial message comes with an attached logo of a prominent organization the sender claims to be from.

“We’re seeing … Service Ontario, the CRA logo, the logo come up on text messages to make it more believable,” he said.

“If they claim to be a specific financial institution, they will include the first four digits of the client card number. A lot of victims don’t realize that those first four to six digits are all the same with a specific financial institution.”

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Protection techniques

Those receiving an unexpected text message alleging to be from their bank, law enforcement or a government agency should never provide personal information in a reply, according to the Canadian Telecommunications Association, which represents carriers and manufacturers in the industry.

Instead, it recommends calling the relevant institution using the contact information on their website to determine if the message is legitimate.

The association also encourages anyone who receives a text message they believe to be fraudulent to forward it to 7726 (SPAM), which will alert their cellular provider to open an investigation into the message itself.

“Wireless providers continue to invest in developing and deploying measures to reduce unwanted text messages, such as the use of scanning and filtering software, while also ensuring consumers still receive the text messages that are important to them,” said CTA spokesman Nick Kyonka in a statement.

“We advise consumers not to click on any links in text messages that seem suspicious, including messages from someone that you do not know or that you were not expecting.”

Pierre-Luc Denis, director of electronic commerce enforcement for the CRTC, said the regulator is working with telecom companies to allow them to block certain types of traffic deemed detrimental to customers’ security as they emerge.

It’s one example of how the CRTC is trying to be proactive as text message scams evolve. But Denis said scammers are always trying to stay one step ahead, adjusting their schemes based on what does and doesn’t work, or in reaction to law enforcement and regulators catching wind.

“Bad actors find new ways to try to get to their means, so to speak,” he said.

“The technical landscape evolves extremely rapidly, and once a specific technique is either overused or it’s been addressed … you’ll see a switch off to a different type of scam.”

Denis described the rise of such incidents as “an international trend,” noting the CRTC consults with its counterparts in other countries to keep updated on emerging scams that could find their way to Canada.

“It’s a global problem,” he said.

Sammy Hudes, The Canadian Press