During his daily coronavirus press update on March 26, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau cautioned Canadians about what he called “a text scam.” He was referring to a message that many Canadians had begun to receive on their cell phones within hours of the government announcing financial assistance to people affected by COVID-19 in terms of loss of employment or closing down business. The text message – supposedly from a government agency – informed recipients that a certain amount of money had been deposited in their account and asked them to click on an embedded link for information.
“I’m sorry to say there appears to be a text scam going around on the new emergency response benefit. This is a scam,” Trudeau stated.
The text scam is a new variation on a form of fraud that has bedeviled Canadians for some time = telephone fraud. A few days before Trudeau’s remarks, on March 18, Susan Delacourt, one of Canada’s most senior and highly respected journalists, had posted the following tweet: “Twice today I’ve received calls from ‘federal service department’ telling me I’m facing arrest for something or other. Imagine what these scam calls are doing to vulnerable, scared people living in isolation during #COVID19. Not much makes me blindly furious, but this does.”
Scam calls like these have become a national issue in Canada, with serious impact on the most vulnerable population. They have profoundly changed ordinary public’s use of their phones. According to investigations conducted by Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) in 2019, India is the major source of these fraudulent calls. It is a measure of how immoral and uncaring the operators of these call centres are that they would see the present global health crisis as a business opportunity.
The Indian police have been totally ineffective in or unconcerned about shutting down these rogue call centres and prosecuting their operators. Their presence and practices are damaging India’s reputation.
How do these calls work? Here is a typical example.
The phone rings. The caller’s number is unknown and identity is not displayed. A very official sounding, ominous recorded message, claiming to be from Canada Revenue Agency (CRA), tells you that you owe money and there is a warrant out for you. If you do not respond immediately by pressing a digit on your phone, you will be at serious risk. CRA is the arm’s length agency responsible for collecting taxes on behalf of the Canadian government.
This is just one of several threatening messages that are inundating Canadians, especially elderly people and new immigrants with limited facility in English.
In September-October 2019, CBC Television’s program, Marketplace, reported on the results of its extensive investigation. It found that the biggest source of these fraudulent calls is India, especially Mumbai. Following these reports, in November 2019, the Indian police acting in concert of Canada’s national police, the RCMP, raided the call centres in Mumbai and made some arrests. Indeed, so lucrative is the business that the owner of one of these scam operations was arrested while purchasing a private jet.
However, they went free and the arrests have not put an end to the business, as Delacourt’s tweet and the recent text scam show. According to reporter David Common, who led the CBC investigation, the call centre owners have now split up their businesses into small, decentralised operations that are much harder to detect.
The cost to Canadians is two-fold. Many victims of this scam pay up. On the other hand, those, like me, who have realized that these are fraudulent calls, do not answer their phone if they cannot recognize the number or do not see or trust the caller’s ID. The financial cost is high – to the tune of tens of millions of dollars. But so is the social cost. In trying to avoid these calls, ordinary people are missing out on genuine calls. Our phone service, which is expensive, has become inefficient. Genuine callers have to leave a voice message and be called back.
This is not a new situation.
We began receiving these calls over 10 years ago. At that time, the callers pretended to be contacting us on behalf of one of Canada’s telephone service providers, offering us a better deal than what we had. Once, when my wife politely answered that we were not interested and hung up, the fellow called right back and started screaming in the most vulgar language full of swear words. Naturally, my wife was badly shaken and speechless.
I was at that time the chair of Toronto Police Services Board, which oversaw Canada’s largest municipal police service. I spoke about these calls to our senior officials. They were aware of the situation as others had contacted the police as well. However, they pleaded helplessness because the calls were originating overseas, well beyond the jurisdiction of a local law enforcement agency in Canada. I then wrote to India’s Consul General in Toronto urging action by the Indian police.
The Indian representative called me promptly to challenge my view that these calls were coming from India, dismissing the fact that the callers’ accent was unmistakable and they had used Hindi swear words. Had the official not taken this ostrich-like attitude out of false nationalism, much reputational damage to India could have been avoided, as well as the very high financial and social costs incurred by ordinary people.
An occasional raid and a few arrests will not end this widespread preying on innocent victims. The Indian police have to do everything in their power to stamp out this lucrative crime with significant cost to India and to innumerable ordinary victims in Canada.
Alok Mukherjee was chair of the Toronto Police Services Board from 2005 to 2015, and a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Ryerson University, Toronto, until 2019. He is the author, with Tim Harper, of Toronto’s Fight to Reform City Policing (2018).