In the darkness of the early morning of February 13, 2020, several unmarked RCMP vehicles followed Gurinderpreet Dhaliwal into a parking lot in Brampton, Ontario, northwest of Toronto. When he pulled over, the gendarmes took action, surrounding his vehicle, ordering Dhaliwal out and handcuffing him within seconds.
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His arrest — and that of his wife, Inderpreet, hours later — was the result of Project Octavia, a focused RCMP investigation into phone scams defrauding Canadians of millions of dollars.
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A police search of his home reportedly reveals $114,000 in jewelry, along with additional cash, a money-counting machine and other evidence that police say supports their claims that the couple were dick mules. money for an overseas crime syndicate, funneling and laundering money from Canadian victims. fraudulent calls to call center operators based in India.
The Dhaliwals’ trial has been repeatedly delayed. Both pleaded not guilty to charges of fraud, money laundering and possession of proceeds of crime. None of the charges against them have been proven in court.
Three other people arrested as part of the task force’s broader investigation fled Canada before they could be arrested. Two others were operating out of Nepal, but would be arrested if they ever came to Canada. Two have reached agreements to avoid prison. One was deported. And one hasn’t had his trial scheduled yet.
But less than a year after the Dhaliwals were arrested, Project Octavia quietly disappeared. The RCMP task force that targeted Canadian accomplices in fraudulent calls has been disbanded, even as these calls continue unabated and the financial losses of Canadians mount.
“In an industry like this that operates with impunity, you send the message that Canada doesn’t care about this kind of crime,” said Vanessa Iafolla, a financial crimes researcher at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax.
Public pressure forced the RCMP’s initial response
The RCMP formed Project Octavia in October 2018 after a CBC Market The investigation revealed how little the RCMP had done to combat the thousands of scam calls that harassed Canadians every year, with schemes ranging from Amazon refund scams to impersonating government officials. the Canada Revenue Agency.
Ralph Goodale, then federal Minister of Public Safety, promised to act. Soon after, the special task force was formed at the Milton, Ontario, detachment to find those in Canada providing the critical link between victims here and call centers overseas.
“This is essentially a national priority investigation,” the RCMP inspector said. Jim Ogden said when the task force was created.
But in January 2021, with cases still pending and scam call activity increasing, the RCMP eliminated its financial crimes unit in Ontario, which oversaw Project Octavia, redeploying scam call investigators to other locations. other areas.
While the Mounted Police officially says work will continue inside other pre-existing units, including serious and organized crime teams, a senior RCMP source said Market investigations are stopped.
Victims “will continue to be victimized, they have no recourse,” the source said via email. CBC is granting the source confidentiality because it fears professional repercussions for criticizing the decision to end Project Octavia.
The source says the RCMP is uniquely positioned to work with police in India to respond to ongoing calls.
“These scams are multi-jurisdictional, making it difficult for local law enforcement agencies to deal with them effectively,” the source said.
An RCMP spokesperson said Market that its Integrated Market Enforcement Teams (IMET) “remain a dedicated unit that focuses on fraud or other types of illegal activity in the securities markets”.
WATCH | Canadians still losing money to scam calls as RCMP shuts down task force:
The RCMP said the unit “provides expertise in securities law, process and regulation, financial services, regulatory requirements, forensic accounting, corporate investigations, risk management of security and criminal investigations in the financial markets”.
However, the source said Market that the unit has nothing to do with investigating phone scams.
The decision, Iafolla says, is “very reactionary. It’s a night flight.”
Ending the task force specifically targeting those who funnel money overseas “just makes Canada a more attractive place for people who engage in these kinds of scams,” she said.
Police say financial mules in Canada receive money – and keep a fixed portion of it – in return for being a conduit to criminal kingpins. Not all mules are necessarily aware of their role in the scam. Some grew up in India and came to Canada on student visas, or emigrated and were recruited to become mules before leaving India or once settled in Canada.
How scammers get their money
While most people contacted by scammers are not victims of the trick, a sufficient number do, making it an extremely profitable business.
Phone scammers, Iafolla said, “are people who really understand other people’s vulnerabilities and exploit them.” She describes them as “natural psychologists”.
Monique LaFrance, of Gatineau, Quebec, lost nearly $200,000 in what is now known as the bank investigator scheme.
“He introduced himself as a Royal Bank security investigator, and he told me my accounts had been compromised,” she said of the scam call she received in August. 2020. “He asked me if I wanted to help them track down the fraudsters and help others.”
The scammer said he would deposit money into her account – and she had to send that extra cash in the mail to specific addresses. What she didn’t know was that the scammer was accessing her online banking and adding money to her savings account by tapping into her line of credit.
“It’s crazy. It’s really crazy. It makes me sick just thinking about it,” she said.
One of these packages was addressed to Abhinav Bector at his home and another package was addressed to Abhi B at a duct cleaning company where a man with the same name was employed. The RCMP tracked this package and arrested Bector.
He was charged with fraud, money laundering and possession of proceeds of crime. But in a deal that avoided a trial and the possibility of a prison sentence, he only pleaded guilty to the latter charge.
When approached by CBC reporters in November 2021 and asked if he had anything to say to his victims, some of whom are at risk of losing their homes and life savings, he replied: “I don’t nothing. I wasn’t.”
Signs on Bector’s car suggest he now works as an Uber driver. But at sentencing in September 2021, the court heard he had received a job offer from a Canadian bank. His criminal record will be expunged a year after his guilty plea, so the bank making the offer may never know of his criminal past.
‘I think it’s cruel,’ daughter of alleged victim says
Gurinderpreet Dhaliwal, arrested by RCMP in this parking lot in February 2020, and his wife, Inderpreet, are facing trial. However, the procedure has been delayed several times and is not expected to start again until spring 2023.
They continue to live in the Brampton home where police say they found money linked to scam victims.
Court documents allege that one of them is Melissa Steele’s father. She doesn’t want to identify him by name, fearing the scammers will target him again. He has cognitive difficulties and still doesn’t understand what happened — or the consequences that will change his life.
“He got one of those calls saying he owed tax money and he was in trouble. He ended up driving to his bank and withdrawing some money.”
Since then, he had to move. Steele has a message for the couple who allegedly received the money from his father, leading to charges.
“I would say that’s cruel, and how would they feel if someone treated, you know, their loved ones that way.”
CBC reporters asked Inderpreet what she would say to people who lost their life savings, some of whom are expected to testify at trial. She replied, “No comment.”
His lawyer, Thomas E. Pittman, later contacted CBC to emphasize that his client would not comment before trial. He said the RCMP incorrectly characterized her as “a member of an international criminal syndicate.”