London

RCMP urges 'diligence' as identity theft linked to CERB soars

While the federal government doles out billions of dollars to blunt the economic pain of the coronavirus crisis, thieves are assuming peoples' identities to bilk them out of badly needed money.

Police have investigated at least 172 CERB fraud cases across Ontario 

CERB fraud has soared, fuelled by economic uncertainty, readily available personal information obtained through data breaches and phishing scams as well as confusion over the CERB program itself. (CBC)

An RCMP anti-fraud intelligence analyst says a shadowy group of criminals is taking advantage of hundreds of people in uncertain times by assuming their identities to collect government cheques meant to blunt the economic pain of the coronavirus crisis. 

Jeff Thompson with the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre said there are more than 700 cases of identity theft right now linked to the Canada Emergency Response Benefit, or CERB. The program allows taxable payments of $2,000 for up to four months for Canadians who lost income because of the pandemic. 

The London Police Service said Thursday that officers have investigated up to 20 such cases in the city with the mounties reporting at least 172 cases across Ontario. 

With the federal government shelling out billions of dollars for those suffering the economic hardships of the virus, it's proven to be an opportunity for fraudsters who, in some cases, have taken advantage of the confusion over the government program to add an extra layer of misfortune to the people who actually need the money. 

While the federal government doles out billions of dollars to blunt the economic pain of the coronavirus crisis, thieves are assuming peoples' identities to bilk them out of badly needed money. (CBC )

"Identity fraud is a real frustrating crime," Thompson said. "In many cases, the responsibility lies with the victim to clear their name, so there's lot of time they have to spend reporting."

For many fraud victims it means long hours on the phone with the bank, Service Canada, the Canada Revenue Agency and credit card companies as they try to reclaim their identities. 

"It does take a lot of time for victims to clear their name but if it isn't you who's applied for this stuff, that should be straightened out in the long run," Thompson said. 

Since the spring, criminals have been using peoples' personal data, obtained through mail theft, data breaches or even phishing schemes, to open accounts and credit cards under assumed names on top of intercepting government aid meant for people who need it most. 

Since the spring, criminals have been using peoples' personal data, obtained through mail theft, data breaches or even phishing schemes to collect CERB cheques meant for someone else. (TippaPatt / Shutterstock)

Thompson said once your identity is in the hands of a fraudster, it can be used to drain your bank accounts before the information is sold or traded on the black market.

"It's good practice for citizens to be doing due diligence at all times."

"That really starts with checking your credit reports once a year, making sure there are no unauthorized activities, checking your financial statements, your bank accounts, your credit card statements making sure there's no unauthorized charges, monitoring your mail, making sure you're getting your mail and it's not being stolen or redirected."

"These are things you might see if you're a victim of ID fraud," he said. "In some cases, we hear stories of victims of ID fraud start getting calls from collection agencies."

Given how fraud can sometimes go undetected for months, the scale of the problem isn't clear, but it's large enough the federal government issued a fraud warning to those collecting the CERB and Revenue Canada has urged people to report suspected CERB cheats to its tax evasion snitch line

Even before the pandemic, identity theft was a problem. The Chartered Professional Accountants of Canada estimated Canadians lost $21.2 million in 2018, up more than 50 per cent over the year before. 

Many personal details are obtained easily by thieves thanks to largescale data breaches by hackers who can then turn the information around for profit. The Toronto-based Wattpad sent out a note to users in July that said hackers may have had access to email addresses, birth dates, the gender of members and encrypted passwords.

Wattpad said it had not found evidence of financial information being accessed by unauthorized parties. 

Thompson said it's important for anyone who thinks they've been the victim of identity fraud to report it to the RCMP Anti-Fraud Centre and their local police department. 

"Absolutely, if you're a victim of identity fraud, then you're a victim of a crime and police need to know what's happening in their local community."

with files from Allison Devereaux, London Morning

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