Fraudsters bilk $5.1 million from Torontonians in landline phone scam: police

Toronto police are issuing a warning after a phone fraud scheme recently bilked five people in the city out of a combined $5.1 million, with investigators saying the scam appears to be targeting hundreds of people across the country.

Det. Sgt. Ian Nichol says starting in November, victims began coming forward about receiving calls from a retailer telling them they were the target of credit card fraud.

Police say the caller would remain on the line after telling victims to hang up and call 911 or their bank, exploiting a quirk in landline phone technology that allowed the fraudster to redirect the call seconds later to another impostor claiming to be a police detective or a bank fraud investigator.

Nichol says the fraudster posing as an investigator then allegedly told the victim to withdraw their assets and wire them to another location while the supposed investigation into the purported fraud affecting their credit card was being completed.

Police say victims would then wire their money to an account provided by the fraudsters and were told to keep their activity secret to protect the "investigation" into complicit bank employees.

"It appears to be a true mass marketing scheme in the sense that there are certainly hundreds of thousands of attempts being made," Nichol said.

Police said there was evidence indicate that in some cases, the callers may already have some of the banking information of the intended victim.

The scheme appears to target owners of landlines, not cellphone users, and there is no evidence to indicate a specific telephone provider has been targeted, police said. There's also no indication that the age of the victims is a factor, Nichol said.

"There is an effort to convince the victim for a need for secrecy," Nichol told reporters. "They are persuaded that there is an ongoing bank investigation involving a complicit employee — and this, again, is a fabrication."

He added the fraudsters would keep calling for several days "to ensure that no efforts are made to recover the money while it's being withdrawn from wherever it's sent to."

Police do not yet have suspect descriptions and Nichol said the Toronto frauds involved a "foreign" element, but did not elaborate.

American law enforcement agencies have been co-operating with Toronto police with the investigation, he said.

By Daniela Germano, The Canadian Press