1 year, 5 stories

Some people are calling the guy who trolls phone scammers 'a hero'

Kevin Underhill has become something of a folk hero since CBC News first shared the story of how he turned the tables on scammers posing as Canada's tax man.

London, Ont., man is now well known among those who use phone scams to bilk victims

Kevin Underhill turned the tables on phone scammers, pestering them with repeated calls until they begged him to leave them alone. (Submitted)

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To mark the anniversary, we are revisiting five stories that had an impact on the community — and on our reporters and staff.

Here is one of those stories.

Kevin Underhill says he gets social media messages from people who were the intended prey of phone scammers about once a week.

"I've got quite a bit of people that keep reaching out to me when they get the calls." 

The calls the London, Ont., man is referring to are from the would-be victims of fraudsters: men and women working in a shadowy call centre, calling people all over the country and posing as agents from the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA), trying to use intimidation tactics to bilk honest people out of thousands of dollars. 

Underhill said the people who call him often want to compare notes, or, give him kudos. 

"They either tell me 'Hey, I'm getting these calls, here's the phone number I'm getting,' or, 'Thanks for the great idea, I used it myself, you're a hero,'" he chuckles. "I think that's a little strong of a word, but I'll take it."

Underhill said in the seven months since CBC News ran an online story about him and his appearances on the CBC Radio programs, London Morning and As It Happens, the calls from scammers posing as Canada Revenue Agency taxmen haven't stopped, but they have taken on a whole new life. 

'Nice try, Kevin Underhill'

Scam artists impersonating the Canada Revenue Agency are trying to get money out of Canadians by convincing them they owe tax money. (CBC)

"Most of them are catching on after about three minutes in, I'm not getting the fun I used to get," he said, noting he's become so notorious among the scammers that they even know his name.  

"I'm well known," he said. "As soon as I start giving them a fake name they say 'Nice try, Kevin Underhill' and they hang up."  

"I'm not getting the fun I used to get." - Kevin Underhill

While it's not as fun as it used to be, Underhill said his notoriety among the scammers in and of itself is rewarding. 

"It feels pretty good actually," he said, noting his cellphone number is blocked on at least 20 to 30 lines because when he tried to call back using his own number, he often can't get though. 

Sometimes though, he still manages to slip through their defences, lulling the scammers into delivering some startlingly candid moments. 

'How do you live with yourself doing this?'

"One guy on the phone, I kept him on the phone a little longer, he finally goes 'Okay, I'm done playing with you now," Underhill said. 

"I said 'How do you live with yourself doing this?' And he held up the phone to the call centre and he said, 'Do you hear all the people talking?'

"I'm like, 'Yeah, a lot of them are playing games with you.' And he goes, "We're still getting lots of iTunes, a lot of Western Union, a lot of Canadian Tire cards coming through, any type of gift card, people are still sending them.'" 

Underhill said that in the last seven months, the scammers have also grown more sophisticated, using two new types of Revenue Canada scams in the hopes of tricking people into handing over their cash. 

The scammers have developed two new techniques

The first involves someone calling posing as somebody who works in the CRA's legal department. They leave a voice mail message with their intended victim, saying that the person who received the message must call back, Underhill said. 

They're criminals. They know what they're doing and they don't care.- Kevin Underhill

"Whoever you call is the actual person who leaves the voicemail, so it's not like you get transferred," he said. 

The second technique the scammers now use is pretending to be a lawyer, according to Underhill. 

"He's not an agent, he's a lawyer," he said. "I got that one in a meeting and called him back and said, 'You called me, what do you want?'

"He said, 'I am the legal representation, you must get a lawyer right away. I am the lawyer for the CRA and we're taking you for fraud and everything else.'

"And I said, 'really? That is so weird' and he goes, 'Why?'"

"I went 'because I just got my CRA tax refund today' and I said 'you are so fake and you really don't know who you're talking to," and he goes, 'Is this Kevin Underhill?'" 

After that, the man hung up. 

'They're criminals'

Underhill said his recent experience with the scammers' new techniques shows two things:

One, that decent people are learning more about the scammers' techniques and two, the scammers are adapting their techniques to overcome more people. 

"They're criminals," he said. "They know what they're doing and they don't care. A lot them justify it with 'I don't live in Canada,'" he said. "They make millions of dollars doing this." 

It's why Underhill would give this advice to anyone who gets a call from what sounds like an agent from Revenue Canada threatening criminal prosecution if they don't hand over a sum of cash: 

"It's better to err on caution than trust," he said. "They're cyber threats. They're really trying to take your money and make a quick buck. Yes, more and more people are becoming aware, but call the CRA, call your bank, ask them and they'll all reiterate, 'we don't ask for this information over the phone.'" 

Underhill said if you think the call might be legitimate, you can always double-check the phone numbers the suspected scammers give you with the organization's website. 

If it doesn't add up, he suggests you switch tactics. 

"Have fun with them," he said. 

About the Author

Colin Butler

Video Journalist

Colin Butler is a veteran CBC reporter who's worked in Moncton, Saint John, Fredericton, Toronto, Kitchener-Waterloo, Hamilton and London, Ont. Email: colin.butler@cbc.ca


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