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Financial scams are a major threat around the world. The number and types of scams and fraud are constantly expanding. According to a 2022 survey from the Chartered Professional Accountants of Canada (CPA Canada), around 46% of Canadians have personally experienced fraud at some point in their lives.¹ Scammers use increasingly sophisticated and devious methods to get your money or personal details. Whilst the prospect of losing your hard-earned money to a scam may be scary, there are many ways you can protect yourself, your family and your friends. Here are some tips to spot, avoid and guard against scams.

How to identify a scam

Whilst scams come in many forms (phone, email, social media, etc.), most have three common characteristics.

Unsolicited: Many scams start with a communication you didn’t initiate, often in the form of “spam” emails or uninvited social media messages. Scammers can use these platforms to send thousands of messages at once, in the hope that just one will find an unsuspecting victim.

Unexpected: Scams can also arrive out of the blue from seemingly legitimate sources. Some may even appear to come from a company, charity or person you know. For example, a company with which you do business contacts you for personal information such as a credit card number or account number they should already have. Remember, most legitimate company contacts – especially from financial institutions – will come via a written letter.

Urgent: Scammers know the more time you have to think, the more likely you are to suspect a scam. That’s why they regularly introduce urgency into their communications in an attempt to get you to act without thinking. Scammers often tap into emotions of fear or greed to manipulate you into revealing personal information, sending money, clicking on a link or downloading a program. Messages may refer to penalties or punishments that require urgent action to avoid. Or, scammers may promise prizes or investment “opportunities” at risk of disappearing unless you act now. Remember, legitimate businesses will give you time to make a decision.

Types of scams

Scammers are constantly changing and refining their approaches as technology advances. Here are a few of the more common types of scams that occur both online and offline.

Advance-pay scams. In this scam, you’re asked to pay money in anticipation of receiving something of greater value – of course, you receive nothing in return. These types of scams are often tied to lotteries, sweepstakes and dubious financial “opportunities.” You’re notified that you’ve won a contest (that you weren’t aware of beforehand, typically). However, the message explains you must pay taxes, customs duties or some type of fee to claim the prize. The scammers may ask for bank account information or request that you send money via wire transfer. They may even suggest you pay your fee with gift cards – favoured by scammers because they’re readily available and virtually untraceable.

Romance scams. Scammers prey on the lonely in this type of scam. You receive a message from a promising match on a dating website or through social media. Your potential suitor claims to live abroad or in another part of the country, making an in-person meeting nearly impossible. Then you start getting urgent requests for money: medical emergencies, travel expenses, customs fees or gambling debts. They’ll ask you to wire them money, deliver cryptocurrency or, again, pay with gift cards. Promises to pay you back never come true. Scammers keep asking for more until you become suspicious and cut them off.

Trusted individual scams. Perpetrators of this type of scam can be anyone from family members and neighbours to caregivers and lawyers. These scams involve the “trusted” person gaining access or control over your money or investments so that they can use them for their own purposes.

How to protect yourself

Be overly cautious. The first step in protecting yourself from financial scammers is to exercise great caution. Don’t reply to unsolicited emails, phone calls or text messages. Don’t click on web links or open attachments in unexpected or suspicious emails. When in doubt, log in directly to a company’s website or call their verified customer service line.

Look for red flags. Many scams have tell-tale signs that can help you see through their lies.

Scammers may be technically savvy, but they’re often poor writers. Look out for grammatical errors and spelling mistakes – the hallmarks of a scam.

Be wary if a sender’s email address doesn’t match whom they purport to be. Scam emails and text messages are often sent to multiple people, so be on guard if you see the message was sent to various, unrelated addresses.

Pay attention to the URL: Look at the address bar of your internet browser. If you see an address that begins with https, you’re on a page that prevents communications from being intercepted and read by unauthorised third parties. If the address begins with just http, don’t enter any personal information – it’s not secure.

Any mention of gift cards as a method of payment should immediately make you suspicious. Legitimate financial transactions don’t use gift cards.

Protect yourself online. The probability of experiencing fraud goes up by 25 per cent for people who use the internet at least once a week, versus someone who hardly ever goes online. That doesn’t mean you need to avoid the internet; rather, take precautions.

Keep your device software and any anti-virus programs up to date. This will help patch any security holes and keep your device safer.

Be smart with your passwords. Use passwords made of complex, hard-to-guess strings of letters, numbers and special characters. Don’t use the same password for multiple websites, and never share your passwords with anyone.

Be careful on social media. Manage who can see what you post and don’t share personal details. Also, be aware of the risks when accessing social media accounts on a shared computer or public wireless connections.

Find someone to help you. You’re not alone in your fight against scammers. There are many resources that can help you identify and avoid scams, or help if you fall victim to a scam.

If you think you have experienced a scam, check with consumer protection groups. Most countries have them, and they will often have databases of current scams and resources for dealing with scammers.

If you work with a money manager or financial adviser, consult them on any investment “opportunities” or suspicious financial communications. They can help you sniff out potential scams and keep your money safe.

If you find yourself ensnared in a scam, report it to authorities. Tell your bank or credit card company. Inform the police, industry regulators or consumer protections authorities. Even if they can’t recover your money, your report may help protect others.

Financial scams are more common each day. Fisher Investments Canada believes that educating yourself and taking the proper precautions can significantly lower the risk of falling victim to fraud.

Investing in equity markets involves the risk of loss and there is no guarantee that all or any capital invested will be repaid. Past performance is no guarantee of future returns. International currency fluctuations may result in a higher or lower investment return. This document constitutes the general views of Fisher Investments Canada and should not be regarded as personalised investment or tax advice or as a representation of its performance or that of its clients. No assurances are made that Fisher Investments Canada will continue to hold these views, which may change at any time based on new information, analysis or reconsideration. In addition, no assurances are made regarding the accuracy of any forecast made herein. Not all past forecasts have been, nor future forecasts will be, as accurate as any contained herein.

¹ Chartered Professional Accountants of Canada. “CPA Canada 2022 Fraud Survey – Backgrounder.” 24 February 2022.

This content was produced by Fisher Investments Canada. The Globe and Mail was not involved in its creation.