Surprise! These emails about returning CERB payments are not scams

Recipients noticed what sounded like red flags as soon as they opened emails from Service Canada, demanding reimbursement of pandemic benefits.

The government logo looked strange or was broken. The text was gray, instead of the black typically used in official government correspondence. Some were first written in French, followed by English, which to many seemed unusual.

“You received more benefits than the amount you were eligible for,” said one such email, seen by CBC News.

There was a link and a 1-800 number.

Some immediately dismissed it as another scam by scammers claiming to be from a government agency.

Others discussed the emails online, recounting attempts to get direct answers from Service Canada. A recipient said an officer hung up on him when he called to ask.

Some recipients discussed the emails online, on forums like Reddit, and mistakenly concluded that they were part of the scam. (Radio Canada)

On Twitter and Reddit, they said the formatting was very different from government correspondence they had received in the past. One wrote that the government logo looked “awful”, as if it had been created with the no-frills MS Paint app.

Others thought he was suspicious of being contacted by email rather than secure message.

More than 100 people reported the emails to the national fraud watchdog.

But Service Canada says the emails are not hoaxes and those who receive them really have to pay.

The agency is using the email address in question — [email protected] — to communicate with people about employment insurance and emergency benefits. It has sent 26.2 million emails from this address since March 2020, including emails regarding the $2,000 per month Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), which the government launched this month- there for workers who have been laid off or whose hours have been drastically reduced during the shutdowns. .

It is unclear how many variations of the refund letter were sent.

Screenshot of an email, taken from a mobile phone.
The recipient of this email, seen here on a cellphone’s night mode, said on Reddit that it appears to have been created with MS Paint. (MTPROJECTS/Reddit)

Some emails seen by CBC News say recipients must pay back part of their CERB, but do not specify how much.

Recipients are asked to call a 1-800 number or click a link to share information “that may change our decision and impact the amount you owe” within 30 days. After that, the email says, they’ll get a letter in the mail detailing their debt and how to pay it off.

Service Canada says 1.7 million Canadians have been or will be contacted about debt related to the $2,000 advance payments they received after applying for CERB because they found themselves ineligible for the full amount.

The agency says people can verify its emails are legitimate by calling 1-800-622-6232.

The Canadian Anti-Fraud Center says it has received 166 email reports since March 2020, which a spokesperson attributed to “a large number of scams circulating, and [because] in some cases it is unclear whether the email is legitimate or not. »

A photo of a computer screen showing a government webpage.
Service Canada says 1.7 million Canadians have been or will be contacted about debt related to Canada Emergency Response Benefit advance payments. (Giordano Ciampini/The Canadian Press)

It’s good to be vigilant

An expert says Canadians should be extremely vigilant of any emails demanding payment, given the number of sophisticated scams plaguing Canada, including multiple scams related to CERB refunds and Service Canada.

“I think individuals, given how easy it is for them to be victimized and all the steps they have to go through [if their accounts are compromised] are overly cautious in some cases,” said Ritesh Kotak, a cybersecurity expert in Toronto.

“Anyone can spoof an email [address] – it looks like it’s coming from a particular individual, but it’s not, and it’s relatively simple to do. And hackers and fraudsters know it. »

Kotak says Service Canada should reconsider whether email is the best way to contact people about refunds, when it could instead send secure messages or letters through the post.

“There are clearly ways in which the government can communicate securely, and it should take advantage of them. »

In a statement, a Service Canada spokesperson said the content and format of its emails had been advised by privacy, legal and communication experts, and complied with government policies. The emails sent with French before English came from its Quebec offices, the agency said.

When asked if the agency would consider making any changes to avoid such confusion, a spokesperson said, “We continuously review customer feedback on all of our communications, and that feedback informs how we exchange information with customers. »

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