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Toronto woman loses $8,000 to 'grandparent scam,' son says RBC should have done more to stop it

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The son of a Toronto senior who lost $8,000 in what he calls a “letter-for-letter” example of the so-called "grandparent scam" said RBC bank should have seen the warning signs and stopped the withdrawal.

“The branch staff are totally not equipped to recognize these [scams] and it doesn't take a genius, some fraud defence genius, to follow the pattern,” Patrick Winter said in an interview.

On Aug. 1, Winter said, his mother, who has asked not to be identified, got a call from someone pretending to be her grandson.

From the details of the fake emergency to the dollar amount requested, Winter said the call almost exactly matched a previous instance of the scam reported by CTV News Toronto in December of last year.

“It followed exactly. [Her grandson] was in a car with a friend. There was an accident. And then there were drugs [found],” he said.

Winter said his mother went to the bank and asked to withdraw the funds. He said the teller did ask his mother three security questions before granting the request, but because she was coached by the scammers to lie about the reason for the withdrawal -- as the Canadian Bankers Association has acknowledged is a common tactic in this scam -- the funds were released.

Winter said once he and his sisters were made aware of what happened, they told their mother she had been scammed and reported the incident to police.

“My mother is, you know, she feels shame. When you walk back how the scam occurred, and it seems a very common reaction, people realize, like, you know, how could I be so stupid?” Winter said in the aftermath of his mother’s financial loss.

Winter said he issued a complaint to the bank on his mother’s behalf following the incident, which requested for the money to be returned to her and that the scope of the bank’s fraud prevention measures be reviewed and increased.

RBC said it would investigate and see if its own procedure’s were followed during the Aug. 1 transaction, according to Winter.

“They said, ‘Well, we're going to look and see if we followed our own procedures,’ and I said, ‘Well, yeah, your procedures are useless, you're going to come back and say, Yes, we did.’ And, no doubt that's exactly what they did.”

Winter said RBC refused to return the funds and “totally ignored” his request for the bank to scale up its fraud prevention measures.

“They’re disregarding that part of the complaint, which to me is the biggest part really, I mean, it would be nice to get some money back but the biggest thing is they should acknowledge that they've got a gaping hole in their fraud detection,” he said.

In an email to CTV News Toronto, a spokesperson for RBC neither confirmed nor rejected Winter’s account of the incident but did say that it conducted a “detailed and careful investigation” and shared its findings with the client.

The bank also highlighted that it has “a number” of fraud prevention measures in place to prevent identity theft and other types of fraud and pointed to its online Resource Centre for Seniors and 5 Cyber Scams Targeting Seniors.

“We work with our client throughout the process and keep them informed, as we did in this matter,” Cheryl Brean, director of communications for personal and commercial banking at RBC, said in an email. “We have shared our findings with our client and explained the reasons for our decision, based on a detailed and careful investigation.”

CTV News Toronto asked RBC earlier this month for specific examples of its fraud prevention measures at a branch-level, but was told those protocols could not be disclosed for “a number of reasons.”

In Winter’s view, a piece of paper at the branch that highlights the common elements of the scam would be enough to make victims think twice.

“I think that type of thing would have tweaked their awareness because basically what the fraudsters do is they hotwire the brain of the senior,” he said, pointing to a 2017 study on the susceptibility of seniors to fraud by a Cornell University scientist and collaborators at York University.

That research suggests that older adults may be more vulnerable to scams due to a poor sensitivity to financial risk and a reduced detection of untrustworthiness.

In the absence of the added safeguards that Winter believes are needed at RBC, he said he is considering escalating his complaint to the ADR Chambers Banking Ombuds Office (ADRBO).

The Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre (CAFC) has said Ontario seniors were defrauded out of over $5.4 million by the grandparent scam in 2022.

Police have previously advised that officers will never attend your address in full or partial uniform to collect cash. Law enforcement officials will also never contact family members and request money for bail or send someone to their home to pick up money.

Do not attend your bank to withdraw money to give to an unknown person following a frantic telephone call and never confirm any personal information over the phone. Instead, call another family member for clarification, or contact police. 

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