News / Canada

New phone-based scam targeting Canadians steals $5.1 million from five victims

The fraudsters appear to be using technology that keeps calls connected even when the victims hang up to pretend to be banks, or 911 operators.

The new scheme appears to be targeted at land lines, rather than cellphones.

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The new scheme appears to be targeted at land lines, rather than cellphones.

A new sophisticated phone-based scam targeting Canadians has drained five victims of more than $5.1 million, Toronto police said Friday.

The scammers pose as retailers, claiming to alert the victim of fraud in progress on their credit card and asking them to call 911 or their bank. Though the victims think they’ve hung up and dialed another number — some insist they heard dial tones — the fraudsters appear to be using technology that allows them to stay on the line with the victim.

Then, posing as a 911 operator or a bank employee, the original caller convinces victims to move their money, usually via wire transfer, into an external bank account while the fake credit card fraud is investigated.

“They’re pretty good pitch men,” said Det.-Sgt. Ian Nichol. “There is a foreign component to this investigation but I’m not in a position to say where the calls are coming from…There may be a domestic component as well and that’s all I can say.”

Nichol said the scheme appears to be targeted at land lines, rather than cellphones.

“I suppose that there’s something specific with the technology employed in land lines that may make this possible,” he added.

The victims weren’t those who would typically be vulnerable to such a scam, Nichol said.

“They’re all on the ball,” he said. He declined to comment on their financial status.

Nichol said he believes the “emerging” scheme is targeting people across Canada, and has existed for at least four months. Some of the victims said it appeared the scammers already had some of their banking information.

“That doesn’t mean they actually had it,” he said. “It could mean the victims were duped into providing it.”

As well, Nichol said there’s also a secrecy component — the impostors typically convince the victims they can’t tell anyone about the investigation, sometimes by saying a bank employee may be involved in the fraud. They’ll also make followup calls to the victim afterwards.

“They will keep the calls ongoing for several days… to ensure no efforts are made to recover the money,” Nichol said, adding that it can take a while to withdraw money from these transactions.

With five victims losing millions altogether, Nichol said he wasn’t sure if the fraudsters are targeting their victims or if they’re taking a wider, mass-marketing approach.

“It could be a lucky shot on their part,” Nichol said.

The scam doesn’t appear to target customers of any particular banks or phone companies, said Nichol. The details also vary from case to case.

To avoid falling prey to the scheme, Nichol said anyone who receives a similar call should hang up and call police or their bank with a different phone line — preferably a mobile one. They should also visit their bank in person and talk to police.

Nichol also said the public should remember that 911 operators won’t forward calls directly to an investigator. As well, financial institutions will never advise anyone to move their money to an external account for security reasons. Phone numbers appearing on call display screens can be manipulated to be inaccurate, and anyone receiving calls from police officers, bank employees or officials should try to verify their claims.

Based on the number of calls police believe were made, Nichol said there are likely other victims, and encouraged them to get in touch with Toronto police.

“We just follow the leads we have,” he said. “Hopefully this will generate some more.”

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