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Puzzling emails from Service Canada requesting partial repayment of CERB sparks confusion

Some Canadians who received advanced CERB payments may be required to return the money
Many Canadians have dismissed emails from Service Canada because they resemble spam mail sent by fraudsters. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Giordano Ciampini

In recent years, fraudsters have used increasingly sophisticated spam calls and phishing emails to pose as the government and steal people’s information and money.

So when the government of Canada began reaching out to some Canadians asking them to pay back excess payments from the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), many dismissed the emails as spam.

However, despite the resemblance to scam emails, these emails were in fact legitimate mail from the government.

The emails included a link and a 1-800 phone number to follow up with.

Basic digital-safety practices encourage people to exercise an abundance of caution and to avoid clicking links or following up with suspicious phone calls — especially when they are asking for money — which is likely why many people ignored the emails.

What contributed to the confusion was the formatting and language of the emails that the government was sending. Canadians took to online to share their confusion and to figure out if the emails were indeed from the government.

Some said their messages did not include a government logo at all, while others reported them looking suspicious. Others were wary because the correspondence did not include a name or any information specific to them, only a request for repayment. The wording in the emails was poorly structured which created further confusion.

“You were paid more benefits than the amount for first you were eligible,” read one email sent by Service Canada.

Canadians who have received similar emails can verify the authenticity of their emails by contacting Service Canada online, in person, over the phone, or by email.

Canadians with online profiles with the CRA can sign onto their accounts and view any amount that they owe.

Anyone who has been contacted with a repayment request is encouraged to verify with Service Canada or the CRA whether they owe any money — and if they do, exactly how much they owe — before making any payments to avoid mistakenly paying out money to fraudsters.

Failure to pay may result in the CRA withholding a portion or all of an individual’s tax refunds or GST and HST credits until the amount owing is repaid.

Due dates vary by individual and are included in the letters and emails sent by the government.

If a repayment request has been sent, it is important to pay the amount back to avoid legal action from the CRA. Before taking legal action, the CRA must make three attempts to give a verbal warning by phone and provide one written notice by mail.

The repayment requests come at a difficult time for many Canadians. Inflation has caused the price of essential goods such as groceries to rise dramatically.

In an effort to curtail inflation, the Bank of Canada has raised interest rates twice this year which has increased mortgage prices for many homeowners.

The interest rate hike has created some worry amongst investors as the S&P/TSX composite index has struggled since March and is falling consistently.

The combination of factors makes it a difficult time for many Canadians from a range of financial backgrounds.

The repayments for advanced payments are generally about $1,000. The government has offered repayment plan options for people who are unable to pay the entire amount immediately.

For those opting to take repayment plans, the minimum monthly payment option is $28.

One Reddit user, who has chosen to pay $100 per month for 10 months, expects to struggle because of this repayment request.

“I’m going to be financially crippled making the July 1 payment because it’s my rent cheque,” they said.

Anyone who is unable to repay their requested amount can apply for help under the financial hardship provision if paying the debt would “would deprive the debtor of the necessities of life including accommodation, food, clothing, medical attention, and public utilities such as water, electricity, and heating.”

In these instances, it is the responsibility of the person owing money to the government to contact the CRA to request relief.

If someone believes they have mistakenly been asked to repay their debt, they can request a reconsideration within 30 days of receiving notice of their amount owing.

In trying financial times, it’s especially important to be wary of fraudulent emails. Government organizations and non-profits such as the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre and the Better Business Bureau are two reliable resources with tips on how to protect oneself against digital scams.

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