CALGARY -- A consumer agency says fraudsters are taking advantage of Canadians by pretending to be government officials and they're using the COVID-19 pandemic as leverage.

The Better Business Bureau (BBB) conducted an investigative study that found while scammers are leaning away from the typical Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) ploys, they're targeting other government offices to trick victims.

"Many scammers have taken advantage of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic by posing as the Public Health Agency of Canada, (and) our local Alberta Health Services officials," the BBB said in a release this week.

Some groups, which often involve robo-calls transferred to calling centres in India, are still using the CRA to scam victims but more are even pretending to be "contact tracers" with the provincial government.

"Government imposter scams are constantly evolving. Using persistence and intimidation tactics, they prey on people with threats of being arrested if money is not paid or personal information is not provided," says Shawna-Kay Thomas, communications specialist at the BBB Serving Southern Alberta and East Kootenay, in a release. "Consumers need to know how to recognize and avoid this costly fraud."

Many of the fraudsters involved in these schemes fall back on the normal tactics of fear and intimidation to get victims to send them money in the form of gift cards. Some of the newer scams are offering victims "free" government grants that can be theirs as long as they provide a fee, usually paid with a gift card or prepaid debit card.

The BBB says both Canadian and U.S. authorities have been working to crack down on these scammers and those efforts have worked so far. Robo-calls have declined in the past few months but they still haven't stopped.

If you are ever contacted by scammers, the BBB suggests doing the following to protect yourself:

  • Be wary of unsolicited telephone calls from people pretending to be government representatives because the longer you stay on the phone with them the more likely you will be victimized. If you need to be contacted by the government, it will notify you by mail first
  • Never trust names, badge numbers or other identifying information because scammers often use fake names for their purposes. "Call spoofing" may also allow them to trick your caller ID into displaying their number as a legitimate call
  • If the scammer reveals some of your personal information to you, that's not an indication they are legitimate. It could just mean your private data has been compromised and you need to hang up and contact the authorities immediately
  • Never hand over any money, gift cards or any other currency to people over the phone. The Canadian government will never accept payment over the telephone for any reason
  • Don't fall for intimidation tactics, including threats of arrest, that try to pressure you into making snap decisions.
  • If you feel pressured or are in any way suspicious about the nature of the caller's intentions, hang up and call the government agency they purported to be immediately using their official phone number listed on the Government of Canada's directory

The BBB adds there are a number of ways for citizens to report frauds, including contacting the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre and filing a report with the BBB Scam Tracker.