Federal authorities have arrested a Toronto-area husband and wife accused of being Canadian accomplices to an enormous global scam involving overseas call centres, including the so-called CRA tax scam.
The calls will be familiar to many Canadians: Scammers, commonly in India, impersonate officials from the Canada Revenue Agency and insist the recipient owes taxes and must pay immediately, or else face arrest or imprisonment.
Gurinder Dhaliwal, 37, and Inderpreet Dhaliwal, 36, both of Brampton, Ont., were arrested and charged on Wednesday, said Insp. Jim Ogden, of the RCMP’s financial crime unit for the Greater Toronto Area.
They each face one count of fraud over $5,000, one count of laundering the proceeds of crime and one count of property obtained by crime.
“We have disrupted the necessary flow of money from Canada to India, which will have a big impact on the operation and bottom line of scammers,” Ogden said Friday, in announcing the charges.
Officials also announced they have issued a Canada-wide arrest warrant for a third individual, a 26-year-old foreign national, who is currently believed to be in India.
RCMP further said investigators searched the couple’s home, seizing $26,000 in cash, $114,000 in jewelry, a cash-counting machine and envelopes allegedly sent by scam victims containing money they believed they owed.
The CRA scam alone has resulted in reported losses of more than $17.2 million in Canada between 2014 and 2019, Ogden said.
Additional phone-based and online scams — including the SIN scam, the tech support scam and the bank investigators scam — have also targeted Canadians. The Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre said it received nearly 20,000 reports about such calls in 2019, with more than 5,500 people falling victim last year.
How the arrests went down
Earlier this week, Marketplace was present when officers arrested the couple.
Undercover RCMP officers had been tailing the couple for days. Early Wednesday morning, Gurinder Dhaliwal stepped out of his home, got into his car and headed for work at a nearby factory.
Officers don’t believe he had any idea he was being followed; unmarked vehicles tailed him, switching positions to avoid detection.
“When he comes out, we’ll be ready for him,” said one RCMP officer.
As Dhaliwal pulled into the parking lot of his employer in Georgetown, Ont., at 5:45 a.m., the order was given and officers surrounded the man.
Within seconds, he was taken into custody, the contents of his pockets emptied as police loaded him into a vehicle to take him to the RCMP’s financial crimes unit in Milton, Ont., where he was fingerprinted and processed.
Police allege Dhaliwal acted as an intermediary between Canadian victims and the organized crime groups operating the call centre scams back in India.
A few hours after the man was arrested, officers then called his wife, Inderpreet Dhaliwal, ordering her to come to the RCMP detachment. She, too, was under police surveillance and was taken into custody as soon as she parked her car.
In an exclusive interview with Marketplace following the arrests, Ogden said his team’s investigation reveals this couple was working directly with scammers operating out of India.
“They were essentially money mules … that were receiving bags of cash, then counting cash, and then essentially dispersing it and making it accessible to those that are running the illegal call centres in India.”
The couple have not yet entered a plea and were released on their own recognizance. They are scheduled to appear in a Brampton court on March 2.
Watch the full Marketplace episode, To Catch a Scammer below:
Marketplace gets action
Marketplace has reported extensively on these overseas call centres, twice travelling to India to investigate. That coverage was instrumental in action being taken back here at home, Ogden said.
“It certainly helped that CBC did their exposé … that highlighted this a little more for all Canadians, including the RCMP. It pushed us in that direction and certainly investigate it,” he said.
Ogden leads Project Octavia, a special task force formed in 2018 to investigate the widespread scam. It came about one month after a Marketplace investigation identified the location of one major criminal enterprise in Mumbai behind the harassing calls.
At the time, a senior Indian police commissioner said the RCMP had never reached out to co-ordinate prosecution of the offending call centres. Canadian federal officials later said they were communicating with other authorities in India and conducting their own investigations.
“We started our investigation in October of 2018 [and] these particular individuals that have been arrested today and will be charged actually came to light in March of 2019,” said Ogden.
‘More arrests coming’
Police have since worked with Indian authorities to carry out a flurry of raids against suspected illegal call centres in the country. Canadian officials said Friday they know of 39 call centres, in the New Delhi and Noida area, that have been shut down.
Ogden said still others will face police scrutiny and that he anticipates more arrests and charges “in the next few weeks.”
He also offered this message to those still involved in the scam: “We’ll find you, and we’ll further investigate, and we’ll charge where we can.”
Victims of the scams are often elderly or new Canadians who don’t realize that federal tax authorities or major tech companies would never demand payment unsolicited, either by phone or online, or ask them to pay in difficult-to-trace Bitcoin or retail gift cards.
That’s what happened to Nahid Philipos, a Toronto woman who lost $3,000 to the so-called tech support scam — after calling a number she found online when her iPhone stopped working.
After news of this week’s arrests, Philipos said she is relieved to see police finally making arrests here in Canada.
“Even if I’m not getting my money [back], I’m happy that action is being taken for other people to be safe. It is very important,” she said.
Still more work to be done
Mark Simchison, the former head of the Hamilton Police Service’s major fraud unit, has been following these types of scams closely for years.
“Good for them. It’s about bloody time,” he said about this week’s arrests.
Before this action, Simchison believed Canadian authorities were not sufficiently prioritizing the issue.
“I wanted to have faith and I’m glad that they proved me right,” said Simchison. “And kudos to … Marketplace, because you were the one that instigated this, in my view.”
Simchison said while he is pleased to see Project Octavia moving forward, it’s clear, however, that there’s more work to be done.
“Slowly, they may erode away at this; it’s not going to stop overnight, but it may deter them. And then, of course, something new will come along unfortunately. But that’s just the way it works. That’s how fraud works.”