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The Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre says scammers tell their victims that the money will be refunded to them by the government.The Canadian Press

For the past few years, con artists posing as immigration officials have honed the art of cheating new Canadians, feeding off federal policy changes to lend credibility to their scams.

With a wave of Syrian arrivals, and some confusion around the logistics of their last-minute passage, sponsors are warning the refugees that they're likely to be the fraudsters' newest targets.

"I think that, over all, these guys are quite convincing," said Daniel Williams of the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre, a federal fraud intelligence-gathering agency that has been tracking the rise of immigration scams.

"They really stress the fact that this is money that will be refunded to you by the government," he said. Victims are told there's a glitch in their files that leaves them at risk of deportation, and that they need to pay to clear it up.

Before the government's decision to accept 25,000 Syrian refugees, immigration-based scams were already rising sharply in Canada, part of a bigger increase in extortion schemes involving direct calls to victims.

In 2014, the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre recorded 43 reports of immigration scams, with 18 victims. By November, 2015, it had 716 such reports, with 67 victims, for the year to date. The centre only ever hears of about 2 per cent or 3 per cent of the fraud, Mr. Williams said, meaning there were likely several thousand victims in the past year.

Similar scams involve people posing as officials from the Canada Revenue Agency or power companies. Over all, direct-call extortion schemes shot up in 2015, with 811 reported victims by November, compared with 205 in all of 2014, Mr. Williams said.

Victims tend to lose about $2,000 in the deceptions, though it can be far more, as in a recent case in Calgary when fraudsters took more than $20,000 from two victims over two days. Calgary Police issued a warning later about the scammers' temerity, saying two men posing as Mounties drove one victim to a Calgary court and then appeared to retrieve immigration paperwork, bolstering their threat of deportation.

That case prompted Catholic Social Services of Edmonton to ask local refugee sponsors to put newly arrived Syrian families on the alert about strangers asking questions.

"Hopefully, this can be done in a way so that they understand what to be aware of … but aren't totally afraid of anyone who wants to talk with them," wrote a co-ordinator from the agency.

The fraudsters follow Canadian politics closely and play on existing fears. "I'm sure they're setting up their plans for [Syrians] already," Mr. Williams said.

Last June, they began mentioning Bill C-24 to victims after it passed into law, opening the door to revoking citizenship for Canadians who had committed serious offences, he said.

They have targeted different ethnic groups, seeming to use the phone book to pick out names from certain regions of the world, starting with Indian surnames. Later, people with Greek and Polish surnames began reporting calls, and then the group of victims widened further.

Fraudsters try to keep victims on the phone until the financial transaction is over. They often ask them to walk to a nearby gas station and buy a "government voucher," and when those aren't in stock, they ask them to buy a gift card as a substitute and to read out the code on the back. The 14 most recent immigration extortion cases on record involved requests to send money via Money Gram to names in Texas, Tennessee or somewhere in Canada, Mr. Williams said.

For established Canadians, the aggressive tone of the scammers is a clue that something is amiss. They tell victims, "Shut up, I'll tell you when you can talk, if you can talk," Mr. Williams said.

"They treat people in a manner that no member of the Canadian civil service would treat anyone," he said.

The federal government is asking anyone who receives a suspicious call to report the incident to law enforcement and the anti-fraud centre, which has an online reporting option.