Last month, Guy-Paul Larocque received a call from a man claiming to be a representative of the U.S. Internal Revenue Service.
The man claimed Larocque had qualified to receive a grant and needed to share some of his personal financial information before the payment would be released.
Although the man sounded “like a person of authority,” Larocque was suspicious. For one thing, Larocque is Canadian, not American, so how could he be eligible for money from the IRS?
The second red flag may have been even more telling: The call had gone to Larocque’s work phone. The work phone he uses as a sergeant on an RCMP team focused on protecting Canadians from phone scams.
Larocque decided not to let on that he knew the man on the other end of the phone was trying to scam him. He asked questions, and found the caller’s responses to be vague and evasive. Eventually, the supposed IRS agent hung up on him out of frustration.
“If a person is refusing to provide answers to very basic questions, it’s a good indication that it’s a scam,” Larocque said Wednesday.
Larocque was speaking at a press conference announcing the latest developments in the RCMP’s ongoing battle against the Indian call centres believed to be behind the Canada Revenue Agency scam.
4,000 known victims
The CRA scam typically takes the form of a phone call in which the recipient is told they owe money to the agency and are threatened with arrest if they do not pay. The scammers often try to receive their money via Bitcoin, gift cards, wire transfer or another unusual method of payment.
More than 74,000 complaints about the scam have been filed since the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre began tracking the activity in 2014. An estimated 4,000 Canadians have lost more than $15 million to the scam over the same time period.
None of that money is believed to have been recovered, and authorities believe there are many more victims who have never reported the crimes to police.
One blow was struck against the scammers in 2016 when a 750-employee call centre in India was busted. Several arrests were made there, as well as about a dozen in Canada.
The RCMP reported at the time that the arrests had led to a “significant decrease” in the number of reports of CRA scams.
Since then, though, the reports have returned.
“It is a large problem for Canadians as well as the Indian government,” RCMP Supt. Peter Payne said at Wednesday’s press conference.
“It has escalated since 2016.”
Police have responded in kind. Three call centres in India were raided “over the past few weeks,” Payne said, with “several fraudsters” arrested.
Authorities did not have information on exactly how many people were arrested or where in India the call centres were located, but did say that officers were able to seize a spreadsheet containing information about more than 600 Canadian victims.
“The takedown of the call centres has been important for disruption of fraudulent scams which affect Canadians,” Payne said.
Scammers staying ahead of the game
Speakers at the press conference said enforcement was unlikely to ever bring CRA scams to a complete halt, because the people behind them are able to shift their tactics to stay ahead of detection.
Paine said one such change has even taken place in the past few years, with the large-scale call centres like the one busted in 2016 replaced by smaller shops employing “maybe a dozen or 15 people.”
The officials stressed that the most effective tool to curb the spread of the scam is through education.
“We know that other call centres will spring up … but if we can really focus on prevention to educate people what is a fraud, then that will be better,” Larocque said through a French translator.
Newcomers to Canada are often said to be more at risk of becoming victims of the CRA scam. Payne said the RCMP are looking at expanding their anti-scam education efforts into languages other than English and French.