When it comes to protecting yourself against financial fraud and identity theft, don’t just safeguard your computer and other tech devices – it still pays to be careful on that old school device known as the telephone, a new survey warns.

In a Microsoft Corp. survey of 7,000 people in Canada, Ireland, the U.S. and U.K., 15 per cent of participants overall had received a call from scammers since the start of 2010. Of those Canadians who were called by fraudsters, a whopping 79 per cent actually fell for it and got swindled. That means the scam resulted in computer problems, compromised passwords, identity fraud, money taken from bank accounts, or fraudulent use of their credit, debit or retail store cards.

“It surprised us as well. It is a rather high number,” said John Weigelt, national technology officer at Microsoft Canada. 

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While the scams were initiated over the phone, many targeted potential victims’ computers. In the Canadian portion of the international survey, 25 per cent of people called by swindlers were asked for remote access to their computer, 31 per cent were asked to type something into their computer, 34 per cent were directed to a Web site, and 39 percent were asked to buy something.

Microsoft Canada says an increasing number of Canadians are getting calls from con artists claiming to work for Microsoft or other reputable companies saying their computers have been compromised, then offering help in return for credit card information and remote access to their computers.

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In Canada, nine per cent of those surveyed received calls from people making bogus claims to be representing Microsoft specifically. That’s lower than the overall global survey average of 15 per cent.

The irony is that the high quality of today’s anti-virus and other computer protection software is driving bad guys to commit fraud using old technology: the phone.

“One thing we do know is that it’s getting harder for people to write viruses that are successful on people’s desktops,” Weigelt said, adding that phone scams are an easy way to just go around that desktop security.

And businesses, especially small or home-based ones, are not immune to telephone trickery either.

“We didn’t survey around businesses specifically. But certainly if you’re a small or home-based business you could receive a call as well and perhaps you would be more inclined to feel you’re in need of getting (tech) support,” Weigelt said. “We advise businesses to be alert to this type of scam, and their employees as well.”

Consumers are more at risk for phone fraud than businesses, but the losses for corporate telephone fraud are usually much deeper, says Mathieu Piche-Messier, a partner at Borden Ladner Gervais LLP in Montreal.

One of Mathieu’s business clients got a call from somebody “who seemed like a legitimate company in Montreal” ordering perishable goods worth “hundreds of thousands of dollars,” he said. But the caller was an imposter who gave false billing information and a fake delivery address. The goods were delivered to the imposter, who never paid for them and probably resold them for less than market value but still netted “maybe $100,000” from the scam, Mathieu said.

“We were able to trace some people involved but it’s not actually over yet and we don’t know how it’s going to end,” Mathieu said.

“Smaller businesses will need to learn or understand frauds do exist and it’s up to you to really protect yourself,” said RCMP Cpl. Louis Robertson, responsible for the RCMP’s criminal intelligence unit at the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre in North Bay, Ont. Maybe the way you were doing business 10 or 15 years ago is not the right way in 2011. You’re going to have to change it in order not to fall victim.”

People should follow the normal security steps of keeping passwords secret and updating security software regularly, Weigelt says, but should never go to a Web site or install software recommended by someone who makes an unsolicited phone call.

“Microsoft does not call people out of the blue,” so don’t ever give credit card or other financial information to strange callers, Weigelt said.

If you believe you’ve come across phone scams, contact the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre at 1-888-495-8501. 

Christine Wong is a Staff Writer at

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