Elaborate scam swindles international student out of life savings

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Elaborate scam swindles international student out of life savings

An elaborate scam has left a Halifax international student stripped of most of his life savings. 

On Tuesday afternoon, Mehran Durrani got a phone call that appeared to come from Citizenship and Immigration Canada. The name and number displayed on his caller ID matched. So when the caller said Durrani was suspected of being involved in anti-social or terrorist behaviour, he listened.

As he was processing what the alleged immigration official was telling him, Durrani received a call on the other line and was told to pick it up. The caller ID said it was Halifax Regional Police and the number matched the police's local incident dispatch number.

"Because the numbers were real and they were official government [and police] numbers, I kind of freaked out," he said.

Real phone numbers, fraudulent callers

Durrani believed the numbers were real because he double checked them on both the HRP and CIC websites while on the phone. But police say the call-display numbers were likely computer generated.

Durrani said the person acting as the immigration officer took him though the CIC website, pointing out the section referred to as a guarantee or bond. Meanwhile, the police officer said an arrest warrant had been issued for Durrani and said he would be detained for 48 hours, unless he hired a counsellor to review his background and potential criminal records to clear him of suspicion. He was given a figure to pay.

"I mean, that should have been a red flag for me as well but they were controlling my mind in such a way that I just kind of went with it," he said. 

Durrani was assured the money, which the scammers called a cash bond, would be returned to him via cheque once the background check was completed. 

Cheated out of thousands

All in all, Durrani said he was cheated out of about $6,000 which he sent through Canada Post's MoneyGram service and Western Union.

"They're really good at scamming people and they have different ways of getting into people's heads," he said.

"Like for me, for instance, they used my fear of being a foreigner in a country and they specifically targeted a guy...like me, being a Pakistani and brown and being a Muslim. He knew that I was going to panic if I got a call from government officials."

Once the adrenaline of the situation died down, after anxiously awaiting word the background check had been completed and no more communication had been received, Durrani contacted HRP.

That's when he realized he had been swindled.

Planned to use money to visit home

Durrani has been in Halifax for six years, trying to earn his bachelor's degree in geology and working two jobs to support himself.

He planned to use the money to visit home for the first time since he left.

"I was just left with almost nothing in the end," he said.

HRP Const. Dianne Penfound said if someone alleging to be police ever asks anyone to hand over money, that should be a tip off.

"Police don't ask you to hand over money, to make a problem go away so that would be a red flag for sure," she said.

"If you're concerned at all that it may not be legitimate — which this definitely was not — call either Immigration Canada or the police or whomever these people are pretending to be just to try to verify that it is or is not legitimate."

GoFundMe page set up

Through it all, Durrani said his friends have been very supportive, starting a GoFundMe campaign to try and cover some of the money he lost.

As of Saturday evening, the campaign has raised more than $2,500.

"It makes me feel really proud of being in Canada as a foreigner and people have been really supportive. I am really glad to have friends that … have helped me through the whole process — like keeping my hopes up and everything," Durrani said.

He said even though he's going through a "really low time right now," he wants other people to be aware of the scam. 

"[I] want people to be careful of scams in the future because it's not really a good feeling when you've been working all your life to save up so much money and you lose it within a couple of hours."

Penfound said fraudsters are getting more and more adept at swindling people out of their hard-earned money. 

"[They're] using technology that we're trying to keep up with. So yes, it may look like the call is coming from us but hang up the phone and look up the number yourself and call us and just try to confirm the legitimacy of the phone call," she said.