'I was so afraid': Refugees falling prey to CRA scam

Refugees and other newcomers are disproportionately falling prey to an insidious phone scam involving fake Canada Revenue agents, and some are losing everything they have.

Fraudsters posing as tax agents threaten newcomers with arrest

Ariane Ntagemgwa, a refugee from Rwanda, lost $2,700 of her OSAP loan to the Canada Revenue Agency scam. (Miriam Katawazi/CBC)


  • After this story was published, people from across Canada called in to see how they can help.
  • Ntagemgwa has now managed to recoup the $2,700 she lost.

Ariane Ntagemgwa's hands shook so violently she could barely scratch the back of the iTunes card she had just bought.

The woman on the other end of the phone waited for her to read out the number, then instructed Ntagemgwa to buy more cards.

When the Rwandan refugee pleaded she had nearly no money left, the woman on the phone threatened her with arrest.

"I was so afraid. I just wanted to pay," Ntagemgwa recalled, patting away the tears that rolled down her cheeks. "It was my loan from school. I paid them all the money I had." 

She now knows the woman on the phone wasn't really a federal tax agent, and had no power to arrest her. At the time, however, the threat seemed real, so Ntagemgwa handed over $2,700 of her student loan money, none of which she'll ever get back.

Ntagemgwa is one of hundreds of refugees who have fallen prey to the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) scam, an insidious form of extortion that authorities say is now targeting some of Canada's most vulnerable people.

Ariane Ntagemgwa, a refugee from Rwanda, bought dozens of gift cards worth $2,700 after a scammer posing as a CRA agent threatened her with arrest. (Miriam Katawazi/CBC)

'I must have done something' 

Immigration settlement workers, lawyers and police in Ottawa say refugees and other newcomers are at a higher risk of falling for scams because they struggle with precarious immigration status, language barriers and a lack of experience with Canadian law and government agencies. 

The CRA scam typically begins with a recorded message claiming the target is facing a lawsuit, and demanding they call back immediately or face arrest.

For many newcomers, such a phone call can be paralyzing.

"Someone who ... maybe has some fear that if they do something wrong they might get thrown out of the country, these I think are the people that we're finding are often susceptible to falling victim to this scam," said Sgt. James Ritchie of the Ottawa Police Service's organized fraud unit

Scammers tend to isolate their victims by ordering them to stay on the phone, preventing them from calling someone for help, Ritchie said.

After losing all the money she had to a fraudster, Ariane Ntagemgwa, left, contacted Louise Ebeltoft, manager at Carty House, a residence for refugee women in Ottawa. (Miriam Katawazi/CBC)

Ntagemgwa said she stayed on the phone with her scammer for up to three hours as she ran from one store to another to buy the gift cards she demanded. It wasn't until she had no money left that she finally called Louise Ebeltoft, the manager at Carty House, a residence for refugee women in Ottawa.

Ebeltoft said a handful of women at the home, including Ntagemgwa, were severely shaken after receiving the calls. 

"When you come to a new country and you get a phone call like that, your immediate reaction is... 'I must have done something I didn't realize,'" she said.

"[The scammers] prey on people like that because they don't have the information."

Ariane Ntagemgwa is one of hundreds of refugees who have fallen prey to a scam perpetrated by people posing as federal tax agents. She handed over $2700 of her student loan money. 0:41

'There is very little we can do'

Over the past eight months, scammers claiming to represent the CRA have made off with a total of $88,330 from 25 Ottawa residents, according to the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre. But the numbers only represent reported cases.

The fraudsters typically start by taking between $1,000 to $2,000 from a victim. But the extortion often doesn't end there. 

"Once they get the person to pay the money ... then they will come back with a different story," Ritchie said. "We have seen people lose up to $40,000 just through different schemes."

Police say they're powerless to stop a fraud where the perpetrators are almost always based in another country.  

"In the cases that we have investigated, we find that the money leaves Canada so quickly that there is very little we can do at our end," Ritchie said. 

"We really are at the mercy of law enforcement agencies in [other] countries to investigate." 

Sgt. James Ritchie says Ottawa police are at the mercy of law enforcement agencies in other countries to investigate the CRA scam. (Miriam Katawazi/CBC)

'Extremely devastating'

The number of newcomers affected by the scam remains unknown because many never report falling victim.

It adds stress to an already precarious situation where people are not certain about their future in Canada.- Jamie Liew, immigration lawyer

"It can be extremely devastating," immigration lawyer Jamie Liew said. "It adds stress to an already precarious situation where people are not certain about their future in Canada." 

Many of the refugees who have been scammed were already struggling financially and barely have enough money to meet their basic needs, she said. Some never realize they've been scammed.  

Ntagemgwa said since she was scammed, she decided to put off nursing school until she can work to pay off her tuition. 

"It's a huge amount of money for me," she said. "I can't focus on my studies, I can't focus on my job."

She wants the word to get out so other newcomers don't find themselves in the same situation.

"I just want to share my story just so others can learn."