A Brampton couple is now facing charges in connection with an investigation into pervasive phone scams that have seen Canadians bilked out of millions of dollars.

The RCMP announced the charges Friday at a news conference providing an update on the investigation, dubbed, Project OCTAVIA, which was launched in October of 2018.

The focus of the investigation was the infamous CRA tax scam, in which Canadians received threatening phone calls or texts from people pretending to be agents of the Canada Revenue Agency or the RCMP. The scammers typically threaten the recipient with arrest or other serious penalties if they don’t pay an amount supposedly owed to the government. 

Since 2014, scammers working from various call centres in India have collected an estimated $17 million from Canadians through the scam, according to police. Along with the so-called “Bank Investigator” and “Tech Support” scams, the total reported victim losses are over $30 million dollars, police said.

As part of the investigation, police discovered money mules operating locally in Canada to facilitate the scam, collecting and laundering the proceeds.

“The roles of the mules was to receive packages that contained Canadian cash and then forward contents as instructed, thereby money laundering,” Insp. Jim Ogden of the RCMP said.

Two of the alleged mules were arrested on Feb. 12, police announced Friday. 

Police identified the two as 37-year-old Gurinderpreet Dhaliwal and 36-year-old Inderpreet Dhaliwal.

The husband and wife couple have both been charged with one count of fraud over $5,000, one count of laundering of the proceeds of crime, and one count of property obtained by crime.

The two suspects have since been released and are scheduled to make a court appearance on March 2.

A Canada-wide arrest warrant has also been issued for 26-year-old Shantanu Manik, a foreign national believed to be in India.

As part of the arrests RCMP seized $26,000 in Canadian cash, packages allegedly used to receive victims’ money, and jewelry with an appraised value of $114,000.

Through the investigation and working with authorities in India, a number of raids have also been carried out on call centres in India, RCMP said.

“The arrest of Canadian-based co-conspirators is significant,” Ogden said. 

According to police, the scammers’ revenue has shrunk considerably since the investigation began. While the scam is estimated to have raked in $6.4 million from Canadians in 2018, that number was down to about $1.4 million in 2019, police said.

Police could not say how much money scammed from Canadians might be associated with the two suspects facing charges. However police did say that the couple is not believed to be responsible for all the losses, and that there are “many people” carrying out the same scam.

More mules are believed to be operating across a number of provinces in Canada as well. Police said that while investigators are aware of certain individuals, some of them have not been arrested either because the evidence against them is weak or because it has been valuable for police to track their actions.

“We still have others we are pursuing,” Ogden said.

Ogden said that some of those individuals have been referred to the Canada Border Services Agency for deportation or to have their student visas revoked.

While the charges and raids mark progress, police said the investigation remains ongoing. However Ogden cautioned that the scam calls are likely to continue in the meantime.

“I would like to say that they would not get those phone calls, but I expect they will continue,” he said. “If you’ve got a cell phone or a land line, you’re getting calls related to the CRA scam.”

Education key

One of the components of the police offensive has been work to educate the public.

“We’re hoping we can educate Canadians so that they don’t fall victim to these scams,” Ogden said.

He noted that some people gave away their entire life savings. While some money has been recovered, it is a very small amount of the total that has been stolen.

Ogden said police are trying to train Canadians to “recognize, reject, hang up, and report” when they get the scam calls.

While many of the call centre outfits are fairly rudimentary and involve as few as six people, they have been helped along by voice-over-IP and number-spoofing technology that help lend the appearance of legitimacy.

While some people might imagine that scammers are only getting money from technologically-challenged seniors, Ogden said the victims represent a “cross-section” of Canadian society, both young and old. Some of them, he said, are people who were aware that they owed the government money, and were caught by the calls at the right time.

 “The RCMP and our many partners will continue to work together to dismantle these organizations,” Ogden said.