An explosion of COVID-19 cases last summer ripped through the Mumbai suburb of Malad West with such devastation, Indian police poured in to lock down the busy streets and the low-rise office towers that cram them.
In doing so, officers inadvertently disrupted scam calls targeting Canadians by shutting off the flow of fraudsters who work inside call centres across the area.
But that’s all ended now.
When strict lockdowns abated in the mega-city, the hunger of criminal syndicates for the millions they successfully steal outweighed any ongoing public health fears.
“There are six to seven centres [within] 80 to 100 metres,” Jayesh Dubey explained to CBC Marketplace via video conference under the cover of night from within the business quarter.
And in one night, they’ll steal “$70,000 to $80,000.”
For months, Dubey, a whistleblower within the scam centre industry, has been observing the “hundreds of workers” pouring into entire floors of buildings. He says that in the early days of the pandemic, scam centres were shut down. But now they’re back in full swing, with scammers posing as tax officials and bank employees, convincing unsuspecting Canadians to pay up or risk serious consequences.
The bank investigator scheme is now one of the most prolific, a resurrected scam of the past, with the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre reporting at least $3 million stolen from Canadians in an already dark 2020.
“With everything that’s going on in the world and the pandemic … we get distracted or we think it’s real,” said Ryan Duquette, a cybercrime investigator based in the Toronto area.
The fraudsters, who have tripled their illegal take on the bank investigator scam since 2017, strike “a lot of fear” in their targets, Duquette says.
“If you don’t listen to what [they’re] saying right now, you will lose something. You will lose your bank account. It’ll be shut down. You’ll lose money.”
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“It has shaken both of us,” said Ahmed of himself and his wife.
He’s also worried coming forward could put his family’s safety at risk, so Marketplace is not using his full name.
When his phone rang this winter, the caller identified herself as an investigator with the Royal Bank of Canada. She warned Ahmed his credit card had been compromised and his identity had been stolen.
And, says Ahmed, she claimed that, “maybe people from within RBC are also involved.”
Ahmed and his wife had just watched a television program about a couple in their Brampton, Ont., neighbourhood who had indeed lost their home after thieves duplicated their identities and managed to mortgage their property — stealing the money.
It made Ahmed, a retired man originally from India himself, even more vulnerable to the scammers’ plan.
The scammer directed Ahmed to purchase gift cards, which she explained would be tied to the purported thieves, and thus help to track who they were.
At this point, many who receive such a call would be skeptical. To Ahmed, this was a skilled professional who “had an answer for everything.” She also said she had information, which made her seem more convincing.
She claimed to have his name, home number, address, some bank information and more — information that is often obtained from contact lists gathered sometimes by legitimate businesses that scammers buy for pennies per name.
Ahmed’s caller ID listed her number as one associated with the real Royal Bank — likely the result of call-spoofing technology that allows scammers to appear as though they are calling from a specific phone number.
It convinced him, feeding into his fear about losing his home.
Even amid a pandemic, scam centres are booming
India has one of the world’s most sophisticated and developed information technology and call centre industries. It has created a plethora of under-employed English-speaking experts, a small percentage of whom have been recruited by nefarious operators.
They get paid a percentage of the steal. The good ones make more money in a night than they might make in a month in a legitimate business.
And, Jayesh Dubey points out, it’s simple to get into the scamming business.
“I’ll tell you how easy it would be,” said Dubey. “I’ll buy five systems, laptops, one server computer, I’ll hire five people, I’ll buy leads … with two dollars, I get 100 names.”
He says it would take just days to be operational.
And you don’t even need office space anymore. Any location with internet access works, and India is highly connected. Some scam centres have moved into residential apartments, making them virtually impossible to detect or stop — even inadvertently with COVID lockdowns.
Why don’t banks flag unusual transactions?
He withdrew over half of the money in person at an RBC branch.
In the U.K., staff are specifically trained to detect the warning signs of a scam, such as an unusual withdrawal. British staff would then warn the customer that they may be a potential victim — and are directed to call police to attend the bank itself, if they have concerns. The police would then help ascertain if a scam is indeed taking place.
Jennifer Ford-Smith, a certified fraud examiner and anti-money-laundering specialist, says Canada would benefit from a similar approach.
“Those scams will keep changing,” she said, “but that’s where we want the banks to be saying to customers, ‘We’ve seen this type of thing before, in this realm before. If you’re pressured to send money to someone you’ve never met in person before, something’s not lining up here, let’s all take a step back here and consider whether this is legitimate or not.'”
The Canadian Bankers Association, which represents Canada’s big banks, said staff, “are trained to ask probing questions if a customer makes an unusual transaction,” but that customers always have a right “to access their money.”
RBC does have a detailed fraud warning on its website and, in a statement, the bank said it employs “around the clock sophisticated monitoring systems and controls” and may “proactively contact our clients.”
While RBC did not directly respond to claims of a scammer posing as a bank representative, it told Marketplace it reviews “each instance of potential fraud or unauthorized transactions on a case-by-case basis and take[s] all relevant facts and information into consideration before making a decision.”
RBC also said its clients, “must take precautions … and take extra steps to ensure they are dealing with a trusted source when transferring or receiving funds.”
Banks need to do more, victim says
While Ahmed recognizes his own role in becoming a victim, he believes the bank’s approach fails to protect vulnerable customers’ life savings.
“First and foremost the responsibility goes to the bank itself,” he said.
While banks routinely warn customers about potential fraudulent activity on their credit cards, tracked by sophisticated algorithms that identify unusual purchases, experts say there is not the same emphasis on large and out-of-character withdrawals by customers from savings accounts and lines of credit.
Ryan Duquette, the cybercrime investigator, says there “is some responsibility for the banks,” while noting that financial institutions do manage thousands of large transactions every day.
He emphasizes that banks should educate their clients, and recommends that banks work with police “to make sure that these things can be investigated and so maybe bring some of these criminals to justice quicker.”
Ahmed recognizes that his own errors played a role in becoming a victim, but believes large financial institutions have a duty of care over their most vulnerable customers.
The Canadian Bankers Association told Marketplace: “Banks in Canada constantly scan the threat horizon for financial frauds and scams directed at customers, and they go to great lengths to protect and support clients affected by unauthorized activity. The banking sector is not only co-ordinated in sharing information on ever-evolving fraud types and tactics, but also works closely with law enforcement across the country to exchange intelligence and improve information flows.”
Jennifer Ford-Smith, the fraud examiner, said customers whose banks failed to warn them amid signs of a scam should be asking tough questions.
“The bank’s reputation is at stake,” said Ford-Smith. “Customers need to consider, really need to consider, whether they go back and ask the bank what sort of help is available there because these people are victims and it’s changed their lives completely.”
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