Laura Cipolla is still feeling rattled, a little bit shaken and a tad embarrassed.
Earlier this week, the Orillia native received a frightening phone call, purportedly from the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA), warning her that if she didn’t immediately ante up $5,298 in back taxes owed, the police would be knocking on her door to spirit her to jail.
“At first I kind of laughed, but while I was on the phone, I Googled the CRA phone number and it was the number on my screen,” said Cipolla. “I thought it must be legit.”
The CRA agent was officious, provided identification, read the affidavit, told her there was an issue with her 2015-16 tax return and that a warrant had been issued for her arrest. The CRA agent patiently told her that nobody ever wins a fight against the CRA, cautioned her not to go public or face worse consequences and then told her to expect a phone call from the Orillia OPP detachment to confirm the details.
Within minutes, Cipolla, still frazzled and overcome with mounting anxiety, received the phone call; her caller ID showed the number was emanating from the Orillia OPP detachment.
“He told me he was Lieutenant Nate Shaw, gave me his badge number and told me they would be coming to arrest me if I didn’t pay what was owed within 45 minutes,” said Cipolla. “I was getting hysterical.”
The CRA agent called her back immediately and told her how to make a payment. Cipolla said she wouldn’t be able to make the deadline and would need to borrow money from her parents; the CRA agent said she could phone her mom on the landline – while he monitored her cell.
“I consider myself a pretty intelligent, professional person,” said the 36-year-old York Region teacher who grew up in Orillia and was in town this week visiting her parents when she received the call. “I’m also a responsible adult. I pay my taxes. I have an accountant and I follow the rules … I thought maybe the accountant had made a mistake I wasn't aware of. It was kind of mind-boggling.
“But they were very official-sounding, they gave badge numbers … and they just kept increasing the pressure. I was on the phone for 30 minutes and it felt like six hours.”
Fortunately, her mom arrived home near the end of the process and was able to extricate her daughter from the call. However, Laura was not convinced the call was a scam.
They went to the Orillia OPP detachment and because it was after hours, they were unable to file a report at that time. Fortunately, they ran into one of her mom’s customers, a high-ranking officer at OPP General Headquarters.
“She was able, finally, to calm Laura down,” said Dianne Cipolla. “She wouldn’t listen to us because she was basically hysterical … she still feels shaken up and frightened.”
That’s why she’s coming forward: To let people know how easy it is to fall prey to a well-thought-out scam.
“Since this has happened, I’ve talked to the OPP, I’ve called CrimeStoppers, I’ve done a lot of research,” Laura said. “I know now that the CRA will never call you. They told me to block the CRA number, which I’ve done.”
She said she had heard about phone scams and saw headlines, but didn’t really pay much attention, adding she "feels kind of stupid."
“I guess you just don’t think it can happen to you,” she said. "But it can and within a half an hour, I was worried about my job, about going to jail and I was this close to paying them $5,000. It can happen to anyone.”
According to the OPP, the CRA scam is one of the most popular and long-running scams that trips up many unsuspecting victims. In 2017, the scam claimed more than 1,500 victims who lost about $3 million.
However, that’s just a drop in the bucket; OPP say only about 5 percent of these crimes are reported.
“I was lucky. I had my parents here to help. But imagine something like this happens to a senior and they just get so frazzled, they end up handing over the money. I can see it happening,” said Cipolla.
The OPP said to beware these warning signs:
- Urgency - the scammer always makes the request sound very urgent, which may cause the victim to not verify the story. For example, they may say "the police are on their way to arrest you."
- Request for money transfer-- money is usually requested to be sent by a money transfer company such as Money Gram, Western Union or even through your own bank institution.
The OPP stress the CRA will never request by email, text or phone, any personal information such as passport, credit card or bank account information.
To avoid becoming a victim, police advise you to hang up, check and verify the information with CRA by calling a trusted phone number in which you have found and not the number provided by the caller.
If you or someone you know suspect they've been a victim of the CRA scam, check with a Canada Revenue Agency official, and contact your local police service and the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre, Crime Stoppers at 1-800-222-8477 (TIPS), or online.