Like a lot of Canadian seniors, Mary Bryce, 91, and her husband, Ron, 94, each had their own roles.
She took care of the family home, while he took care of the finances. That is, until he moved into a full-time care facility outside Vancouver last year.
So after 65 years of marriage, Bryce found herself dealing with bank accounts for the first time. Family friend Don Christie offered to help.
"Mary had a fall and I was giving her a hand with cleaning up the paperwork that was coming in. Bank statements and things," Christie told Go Public.
"I had no idea what [a couple of debits] were for, so that's why I questioned it. I didn't know what they were and Mary didn't know what they were."
Christie said one debit in particular caught his eye — a charge for $19.90 from ITD 1-800-533-5964.
The mysterious fee had been coming out of the bank account every month for four years.
Bryce is a little embarrassed about the whole thing.
"I guess I should have questioned more," she said. "But as I say, my husband did all of the business before, so I left it to him."
Online warnings about 1-800 number
It turns out that ITD 1-800-533-5964 has a lot of people concerned.
There are many complaints and warnings about the number online, particularly on 800notes.com, a reverse phone-number lookup database, which allows people to check and comment on the origin of calls they receive from unknown numbers.
Those comments seem to point to a pattern of repeated phone calls and sales pitches made to seniors.
A user identifying herself as Sheryl from Washington says, "My 83-year-old mother was also scammed from this company. She sent $5.95 in Nov. 2009 for prize winnings. I recently began helping with her checking account and noticed that $19.90 has been taken out of her account ever since. When I called the company, they said it was for airline tickets and motel discounts. My folks, both with Alzheimer's, have not travelled for several years. The company said they would cancel."
And there's this comment from another user, bobalink: "Keep getting calls, never answer, why I'm 89 years old, it takes me time to get to the phone, it's sure aggravating, wish someone could stop these calls … they're billing me $19.90 out of my account every month ... Bank says they are from PHP 1-800-533-5964 ACH DR ...Please stop this."
It's not clear who is behind the 1-800-533-5964 number. Go Public ran it through a public database and found the number is registered to two organizations called Physicians Health Care Program and Physicians Health Program.
But the debits on Bryce's account are from another company called International Travel Discounts or ITD.
Bank did not flag payments
Christie also called the number and was told the payments were being taken because Ron Bryce had signed up for travel and merchandise discounts. The company then agreed to stop debiting Bryce's account.
Mary thinks her husband may have been contacted by phone and persuaded to sign up for this "service" years ago.
Christie then went to Bryce's bank with the issue. He said the CIBC teller realized there was a problem and put a temporary block on the debit.
But Christie questions why he was the one who had to flag the issue for the bank — after years of payments.
"There were a couple of things I found really objectionable. When we went to the bank and asked them to put a stop on it, they did," said Christie.
"They also pointed out within 15 seconds that it was a scam."
"They have a computer, the computer can scan automatic debits for a number or a name or whatever. This has been going on for over four years."
It's a problem that's on the radar of seniors' advocates. Susan Eng is vice-president of advocacy for CARP, a national advocacy group for seniors.
"The issues with bank accounts and unrelated charges is something that happens all the time," she told Go Public.
"It's very common that people review their bank statements after the fact and see charges they don't recognize. The question then becomes, 'How did it get there?'"
Eng is calling on all Canadian banks to take more responsibility.
"It's a simple matter for the bank to put in the alert. It's not an invasion of privacy. And frankly, I think they have some responsibility to their clients to protect them against obvious frauds.
"The banks are pretty good at defending themselves against your actions. They do cut off your cards when they see any unusual activity. They should do the same thing with our bank accounts. They certainly have the technology — now we need them to have the will to do it."
Financial literacy for seniors
Just last month, the Canadian Bankers Association introduced a new financial literacy seminar program for Canadian seniors.
The program works by matching interested seniors or seniors' groups with bankers in their community, who will hold free seminars on financial abuse, fraud and cash management during retirement.
The bankers group says the new program is attracting a lot of interest. Bryce likes the idea of a free seminar and says there should be more programs like that for seniors.
"I think there's many women in that same situation. I'm in an afternoon group where I used to live and [my friend] said she would be the same [as I was]. Her husband does everything. She doesn't know."
Christie, who at 68 years old is a senior himself, continues to look out for his friend Mary Bryce.
He hopes, by going public with Bryce, more people will do the same for their aging family and friends.
"I think when people see this interview they will be more aware. I've only told a few friends about it and they couldn't believe it. So maybe people will be more aware of it. That's all I can say."
The company answering the 1-800 number has told Christie it will stop debiting Bryce's account and Bryce's bank has also agreed to block the company from her account for six months.
But after that — it is up to Bryce and Christie to make sure the charges don't start up again.
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