Inside an illegal call centre in India scamming millions from Canadians
Published Saturday, March 4, 2017 7:00AM EST
“Lucy” is barely able to contain her fear, even today.
She has agreed to talk about what happened to her in exchange for concealing her identity. She is ashamed she was taken by a scam so easily, and worried her job in Toronto’s financial community will be jeopardized if her employer discovers how quickly she maxed out her three credit cards.
It took only four hours, and six trips to two different drug stores, to plunge $25,000 into the red. A debt she is still struggling to pay off.
“Yes I have fear,” she explained in an interview.
“I thought if they come to work and cuff me and the people at work would know. In my life, we never do anything wrong. That’s why I’m so afraid.”
What created fear and panic in Lucy’s mind was a voicemail message that has also terrified tens of thousands of Canadians since 2013. Someone claiming to be from the Canada Revenue Agency typically says a fraudulent mistake has been discovered in back taxes, and the person needs to contact the tax department to rectify it immediately.
In recordings obtained by CTV’s W5, the voice mails went this way: “The issue at hand is extremely time sensitive and very urgent. We have received legal notice against your name regarding tax fraud. The police department will approach you at your place with an arrest warrant.”
When Lucy received that message, she immediately called the number provided and spoke to a young man who identified himself as “Jason” at CRA and who demanded she pay the alleged tax debt.
He kept the pressure on, instructing Lucy to buy an ever-increasing number and value of iTunes cards over the next four hours, and provide him with the serial numbers on the back of them. At one point the voice on the other end of the phone threatened to reveal to police that Lucy was a terrorist if she didn't comply. According to Jeff Thompson, Operational Supervisor at the centre, who’s heard many of them, the person making the call was clearly extorting the victims.
“There was a lot of fear in the victims” said Thompson. “It was fear and panic they were trying to create. ‘You owe money, you’re going to be arrested, deported, fined, charged.’ They’re going to keep the victims on the phone. They’re going to direct them to the nearest store, the nearest money service business.”
The so-called tax scam preyed on victims all over North America. Here, in Canada, the RCMP estimates that 50,000 Canadians have been victimized by callers claiming to be from the CRA, and that millions of dollars have been sent out of the country through the scheme. And that’s only the people willing to admit they were extorted, police believe many others may be too ashamed to admit it.
Illegal Indian call centres
W5 was able to connect one huge illegal operation in Thane, India, a suburb of Mumbai, to calls made to Canada, and tour the building where many of them were made.
In October 2016, the offices were raided and 83 people arrested and charged. There were more than 700 employees in the facility, which occupied several floors of a new building.
When W5 visited the Thane offices, we found row upon row of empty workstations, revealing the vastness of this criminal enterprise. From hundreds of desks, call centre employees would target and extort money from Canadian and American taxpayers. The scripts they used just left on their desks.
One young man who worked at the call centre and who was there the night of the raids agreed to speak to W5 on condition his identity was concealed, because he hopes to find future employment.
He has already spent 72 days in jail, charged with fraud, and is currently out on bail. “Raviv”, we are calling him, had worked for several years in the legal call centre industry, before answering an ad for people needed for a collection agency. He’s a man in his late 20s and quickly realized after his training it was a scam.
“I was actually going through a bad phase in my life,” he said in an interview with W5.
“At the same time, I have a child and it so happened my wife got attacked with a disease. Making money totally depended on what kind of collection I did. If you were good enough, I would say incentives were marked to infinity how much you can make."
With the CRA scam proving millions can be made deceiving and terrifying Canadians, the RCMP and Indian police agree those urgent voicemail messages are likely to get more sophisticated and even more numerous over time.
Below: A scam script template from an illegal call centre gives insight into how unsuspecting Canadians are defrauded from thousands of kilometres away.