Taxman's phone calls cause confusion

Many consumers are concerned about scripted phone calls from the Canada Revenue Agency that request their social insurance number to address an issue with their taxes.

Many consumers are concerned about scripted phone calls from the Canada Revenue Agency that request their social insurance number to address an issue with their taxes.

The calls, which use a dialer — a device that makes the ringing sound heard in telemarketing calls — have many people spooked, as they appear to be a form of telephone scam. Messages left on answering machines also sound suspect and request that the individual to call 1-800-959-2250, a number not listed on the agency's website.

Even the CRA was unaware that the calls originated from a branch of their own office. "That's not us," said Kaitlynn Workman, a CRA media relations officer, when initially told of the number Friday. "That's a scam."

In fact, the 1-800-959-2250 number is an internal Canada Revenue Agency number, according to 1-800-OCanada, a federal government number listed on the agency's site that lets callers verify whether CRA phone numbers are authentic.

It's "a call centre within the CRA that deals with delinquent accounts," an operator told CBC News on Thursday. A call to the number confirmed that it's a call centre that deals with accounts in arrears. "We're collections," said Lynn Strawn, a call centre employee who took the call. Her job is to ensure that people pay their taxes — or face penalties if they fail to reply to her calls.

But online, the debate over the CRA number rages. Bloggers and online forums are abuzz over the phone number some claim is not legitimate. Many are in disbelief that the CRA could ask for a SIN over the phone — a number that fraud prevention groups like the RCMP's Phonebusters says never to give out. "Do not give out any personal information to anyone who calls," it said in an email Friday.

"The CRA doesn't ask for your SIN number when they call you," reads one online post. "They are scam artists — I'm glad I gave out no info for identity theft."

Even the CRA warns consumers on its site to not provide personal information.

"Occasionally, taxpayers may receive, either by telephone, mail, or email, a communication that claims to be from the Canada Revenue Agency but is not," reads their advisory. "In all these cases, the communication requests personal information such as a social insurance, credit card, bank account, and passport number, from the taxpayer."

It's not surprising that consumers are confused — and wary. Scams have plagued the CRA and other large organizations in recent years. On Aug. 18, 2008, the CRA posted an advisory on its site warning people of a mail scam in which a fraudulent company sent documents with fake letterhead informing individuals that there was "insufficient information" concerning their tax returns. The letter asked people to fill out the attached form and mail it back with passport and financial information.

A November 2007 email scam under the guise of a CRA request also asked for personal financial information and invited individuals to click on various phony websites.

To heighten accountability, the CRA decided to give out tax agent's first names and ID numbers beginning in May. But Corinne Pohlman, vice-president of national affairs with the Federation of Business in Ottawa, who's been pushing for more accountability within the CRA for years, says it's only a first step. 

"We've been pushing for a long time for having some sort of identification scheme," she said. "We do know that in other parts of the world, tax agencies use identification numbers so that people can identify who they are. So that gives a certain amount of accountability to the tax official."

But when asked how long it would take to verify an agent's ID number, a CRA agent who answered the phone Thursday said "it would take a few weeks" and that the process was "complicated."

Checking a number through the federal government's 1-800-OCanada line is one method of defence. But if an individual is called directly by the CRA, that gets murky, Strawn acknowledges. She admits there is no way of checking the caller's authenticity in that situation.

She believes providing an agent number could easily be replicated by a fraud artist.

The final option for consumers suspicious after being contacted by the CRA could be to dial the individual tax line listed on the agency's website. That way, an agent can look into the status of a client's file. But the caller will be required to provide their SIN at that point. And the process can take some time if agents are busy.

"CRA will have to likely figure how they can allow people to understand that they're actually legitimately speaking to someone from the CRA," Pohlman said.