Canadians can tell policymakers whether two recent arrests related to alleged telephone tax scams actually result in a drop off of similar scam calls.
In its release announcing the arrests of a Brampton, Ontario, couple, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police reminded Canadians that if any caller asks for personal or banking information, then they should report the activity to the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre (CAFC) through its website at www.antifraudcentre.ca, or by telephone at 1-888-495-8501. E-mails or texts making suspicious tax claims should not be acted upon, and referred to CAFC instead. March will be Fraud Prevention Month in Canada, and the RCMP estimated that between 2014 and 2019, the CRA scam – callers identify themselves as CRA or RCMP officials and threaten victims into paying non-existent taxes or penalties – has resulted in reported victim losses of $16.8 million. Including similar scams where callers claim to be bank investigators or computer tech support experts, total reported victim losses exceed $30 million.
On February 12, the RCMP arrested a Brampton, Ontario couple following a multi-year investigation into the India-based CRA scam during which investigators uncovered “money mules” and managers operating in Canada who collect the funds from these scams and assist with laundering these funds. The couple is charged with fraud, laundering the proceeds of crime and having property obtained by crime. A search of the couple’s home resulted in the seizure of $26,000 in cash, $114,000 in jewelry, a cash-counting machine and envelopes allegedly sent by scam victims containing money they believed they owed.
Insp. Jim Ogden told a news conference that the RCMP had “disrupted the necessary flow of money from Canada to India, which will have a big impact on the operation and the bottom line of the scammers.” Ogden indicated that other arrests “may be forthcoming”, but did not say whether there were other “money mules” operating in Canada.
The RCMP release also noted that the scam has led some Canadians to be wary or suspicious when legitimate CRA representatives contact them.
CBC’s Marketplace program, which helped spur the investigation with its programming for more than two years, included video of the arrests, along with earlier episode recaps in a recent broadcast.
Consumers Council of Canada president Don Mercer applauded the RCMP action, but added that damage has already been done to Canadian trust of commercial and government communications.
“Canadians want the government to protect them from the kinds of attacks they have faced, and expect governments to lead in requiring telecommunications service providers to harden their networks against abusers,” Mercer said. “Sadly, fending off fraudsters has been allowed to become a ritual of life in Canada."
Canadian consumers are not well served by the ability of banks to choose their own dispute resolution firms, according to a report from the Government of Canada's Financial Consumer Agency of Canada (FCAC).
FCAC released its review of bank complaint handling and the effectiveness of external dispute resolution firms on February 19. Canadian banks have been allowed to choose third-party firms to provide dispute resolution rather than be required to use the Ombudsman for Banking Services and Investments (OBSI), which was established to serve that purpose. Royal Bank (since 2008), TD Bank (2011), National Bank (2017) and Scotiabank (2018) have all opted to use ADR Chambers Banking Ombuds Office (ADRBO).
FCAC's review took place between November 2018 and June 2019, after a request by the Minister of Finance in 2018. The report evaluates the operations of OBSI and ADRBO against FCAC-established rules. By most measures, FCAC evaluates OBSI most favourably, and the report's criticism of ADRBO is quite severe in some instances.
In addition, the FCAC report explicitly questions whether the competition between these firms for member banks benefits consumers. It notes that “only two of the large six banks have elected to be members of the (dispute resolver) that compares most favourably to international best practices.” It also observes that having multiple dispute resolution firms adds confusion to consumers, complexity and inefficiency, and makes regulatory supervision more complicated and resource intensive. “FCAC also has concerns about how allowing banks to choose the [dispute resolver] negatively affects consumers perceptions of the fairness and impartiality of the system. Finally, the Agency questions whether the one-sided competition between [dispute resolvers] for member banks is accruing benefits to consumers.”
Consumers brought more than 5 million complaints to banks in 2018, most of which were dealt with by the banks’ own complaints-handling staff. External complaint firms investigated just over 500 complaints that banks were unable to resolve. FCAC found that while the external firms “meet most of the requirements, there are deficiencies.”
FCAC’s report evaluated the industry as a whole, and the two firms comparatively, on a number of dimensions. On most dimensions, its evaluation was more favourable to OBSI. Here are a few examples:
On timeliness, it found that ADRBO averaged 156 days and OBSI 112 days to propose final recommendations. Consumers found the delays frustrating, and FCAC specifically flagged ADRBO’s initial view process as too lengthy.
ADRBO was cited as not meeting expectations for reporting complaints lodged against it by consumers. “FCAC observed a significant number of issues raised by consumers about a perceived lack of timeliness, impartiality and accessibility.”
ADRBO’s procedures for ensuring that it conducts investigations in an impartial and independent manner “are neither adequately detailed or sufficiently comprehensive.”
While OBSI “demonstrates a strong commitment to effective complaint resolution”, ADRBO is “not meeting expectations for effectiveness."
Neither organization meets expectations for identifying and reporting issues that may affect a large number of consumers.
OBSI was described as transparent and thorough in its consultations with complainants, banks and regulators and was said to consult openly and widely with consumers and consumer representatives. ADRBO does survey banks and complainants, but “it does not appear to use the surveys to identify areas for improvement. Nor does ADRBO regularly perform additional consultations with consumers or consumer representatives.”
While OBSI has well-developed investigation protocols, ADRBO “does not provide its investigators with detailed instructions or guidelines.”
Minister of Finance Bill Morneau, who requested the report in 2018, said the Department of Finance Canada would launch public consultations in spring 2020 to “address the findings of these reports and look at how to strengthen the external complaints bodies system in Canada.”
Consumers Council of Canada has published a number of papers on the issue, including a discussion paper in 2018 that favoured making OBSI a single dispute resolution provider, and called the policy that allowed firms to select their own arbiters “a flawed policy that has led to an uneven playing field among banking competitors and between banks and consumers.” In a public statement that year, Council chairman Don Mercer said “the federal government needs to protect bank customers by mandating a single impartial, non-profit external complaints body – a right that should be restored to them promptly.”
The use of a simple warning system modelled on traffic lights would help consumers make better dietary choices and reduce the risks of diet-related diseases such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes, a new study reports.
Consumers instinctively associate red lights with danger and green lights with safety, and this study applies that principle to food labelling. Red lights would prompt consumers to look more closely at the packaging for nutritional information, while green lights would indicate healthier choices.
The study was published in late December in the scientific journal PLOS ONE. It used data from a 2004 nutritional study of 20,000 Canadian adults in which all the food consumed by participants was given a colour ranking in total fat, sodium, saturated fat and total sugars. Researchers used a variety of strategies in that study to move consumers from “red” choices to healthier ones, but the amount of food consumed was unchanged.
The study found that “through an optimistic scenario of avoiding, if possible, foods with red traffic lights, could effectively reduce Canadians’ intake of energy, total fat, saturated fat and sodium by 5%, 13%, 14% and 6% respectively.” It concluded that a nutrient-specific labelling system, if adopted, could help Canadians avoid red-traffic-light food and provide “an effective population-wide intervention to improve (non-communicable disease) risk."
Consumers Council of Canada published a group panel report on Food Information, Labelling and Advertising, that included the collaboration of six major Canadian consumer focused organizations, including three specifically focused on food safety. That report included a recommendation that front-of-package labelling and a related consumer education program work to “reduce consumer confusion resulting from multiple FOP programs.” It recommended that the scheme use intuitive colour coding and/or symbols to provide guidance rather than specific facts.
A two-decade staple of Canadian consumer awareness has come to an end.
The Canadian Consumer Handbook, which provided basic information about a suite of consumer issues as a book and more recently as an online resource as consumerhandbook.ca, now redirects to the Office of Consumer Affairs (OCA) consumer site, under Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada (now recast as Innovation, Science and Industry Canada).
According to provincial consumer protection officials, the OCA stopped supporting it November 29, 2019. They informed the provinces in advance that they would "redirect visitors to more up-to-date pages managed by either OCA or other government departments."
The Handbook was a federal-provincial initiative of the Consumer Measures Committee, and was first published in 1999, and updated periodically through 2016. Its publication was part of a larger CMC initiative that brought numerous provincial consumer protection rules closer together.
Much of the Handbook materials appears to be now incorporated in the OCA site. However, there are many, many hyperlinks at other sites that now likely direct consumers incorrectly.
The Public Health Agency of Canada is investigating nearly 100 cases of Salmonella in six provinces believed to be related to snakes and rodents.
“Many of the individuals who became sick report having direct or indirect contact with snakes, pet rats and feeder rodents (used as reptile food) before their illnesses occurred," the release noted. The release instructs Canadians to practice good hygiene and safe handling of snakes, rodents, their food and their environments. It notes that reptiles and rodents can carry Salmonella while still appearing healthy. Children, elderly, pregnant and those with weakened immune systems are at higher risk.
Six of the salmonella victims required hospitalization, but no deaths have resulted.
Apart from the immediate salmonella warning, the agency included a more general warning about how to reduce illness from contact with reptiles, rodents and their environments. This includes immediate hand washing after all contact, feedings or even being in the same area, regular cleaning with soapy water and sanitizers of any surfaces, and not letting children put reptiles and rodents near their food or drinks.
There are risks to more traditional pet foods as well, particularly with the recent trend towards feeding raw foods. Dogs are not particularly discretionary eaters, but raw food adds some risks.
As some recently published examples have highlighted Canadian pet foods are not regulated by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. Safety and hygiene of the nearly $1 billion industry are left to the manufacturers.