My first interaction with Sarah happened on social media.
Other Twitter users were complaining about the way she had interfered in their daily lives. At first glance, I thought they were exaggerating. Then it happened to me. Sarah, out of the blue, texted me with a simple question: “Can the Conservative Party count on your support in the next federal election? Reply Yes No.”
The type of mass-texting employed by Sarah has been used before. There was Sue from “Ontario Strong” who wanted to know about the way residents of Canada’s most populous province felt about environmental issues. Sue was also active in British Columbia, asking about support for pipelines.
Canada established very stringent anti-spam legislation a few years ago in an effort to cut down on unwanted messages. The regulations have significantly reduced the number of “commercial” emails, but little can be done about what political parties and third-party groups want to ask.
Research Co. asked British Columbians about unsolicited text messages they may have received over the past two months. More than a third of the province’s residents (37%) got at least one message from an individual they did not know asking them if they supported a specific party or policy.
Men seem to be more appealing to the Sarahs and Sues of cyberspace, with 42% of male respondents receiving these messages, compared to 33% of women. British Columbians aged 18 to 34 were also more likely to get these questions (44%) than those aged 35 to 54 (36%) and those aged 55 and over (26%).
There is another, significantly more hazardous type of phone call, that can get through our phones, even when we assume that Caller ID is working properly. Technology has allowed anyone to change the way their name and number is shown on a cell phone, making it easier for fraudsters to pretend they are reputable government employees.
Just this month, the RCMP arrested a person in Burnaby who appears to be involved in a tax extortion scam. In these phone calls, a scammer pretends to be a Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) employee and suggests that the recipient of the phone call owes a debt. The call is intended to provoke fear that leads the recipient to share sensitive information and even send money directly.
The scammers are casting a wide net. We found that more than a third of British Columbians (35%) received phone calls or messages over the past two months from an individual purporting to represent a government agency – a proportion that rises to 39% in Metro Vancouver.
There have also been calls to cell phones in British Columbia with a recording in Cantonese or Mandarin. At least two of the messages that have been translated allege that the recipient of the phone call needs to contact a representative of the Government of the People’s Republic of China for an “emergency dispatch” by pressing “9.”
Some reports from recipients who have pressed “9” outline a similar pattern: accusations of money laundering, embezzlement or possessing fake travel documents that can swiftly be dealt with by providing a credit card number.
Three in 10 British Columbians (31%) report receiving a message where an individual spoke Cantonese or Mandarin. Metro Vancouver, with a higher concentration of residents who may take a phone call from the Chinese government seriously, has been targeted extensively (42%). But in a curious twist, the proportion of residents of European descent who have received these messages in a foreign language stands at 37%, higher than what is reported among those of East Asian descent (31%).
Only 27% of British Columbians have not received any of these three messages in the past two months. Having to deal with these calls or messages can be unnerving, especially for residents whose mobile phones are used to conduct business.
At a time when telemarketing fraud was more common than unwanted calls from people professing to represent the CRA or Beijing, the federal government established Phone Busters to allow Canadians to report numbers where callers had overpromised or were misleading. Phone Busters eventually became the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre, a repository of information on deceitful activities, with or without telephones.
Still, while we do possess a way to proceed against this nuisance, few of us have used it. While 73% of British Columbians have received these messages, only 37% have reported an unwanted call or phone number to the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre.
In spite of all the illusory talk of millennials being entitled, Canada’s youngest voters lead the way on acting to end these annoying messages and calls. Almost half of British Columbians aged 18 to 34 (46%) have reported an unwanted call or phone number to the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre – significantly more that their older counterparts. Our province’s youngest adults are being pestered the most on their mobile phones. They are also more likely to be doing something about it.
Mario Canseco is president of Research Co.
Results are based on an online study conducted September 11–14, 2019, among 800 adults in British Columbia. The data has been statistically weighted according to Canadian census figures for age, gender and region in British Columbia. The margin of error, which measures sample variability, is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.