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Sloppy work by 'Pierre Poutine' leaves lengthy trail for robo-call sleuth

A customer puts an order in at Pierre's Poutine, a restaurant in Guelph, Ont., on Feb. 28, 2012. Fraudulent calls during the last federal election were traced to disposable cellphone registered to 'Pierre Poutine' of Separatist Street in Joliette, Que.

Fred Lum/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

"Pierre Poutine" was not the most sophisticated scammer.

Fraudulent robo-callers usually cover their tracks, but whoever is hiding behind the now-infamous alias has left an electronic and paper trail for Elections Canada investigators to follow, all the way to a credit card used to spread false information in the last election, sources say.

Hard on the trail of "Pierre Poutine" is Allan Mathews, an ex-Mountie who is best known for probing allegations of political kickbacks in the Airbus affair that hit the Progressive Conservatives in the 1990s and 2000s.

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Now retired from the RCMP, Mr. Mathews is looking into allegations that one or more political operatives in the Southwestern Ontario riding of Guelph directed non-Conservative voters to the wrong polling station in the last general election.

Experts say dirty-trick phone calls are usually placed from U.S. call centres or sent from hard-to-trace devices, but that "Pierre Poutine" made "comical errors," including using the same cellphone to set up a robo-call account and then list its number on the ensuing fraudulent calls.

A U.S. expert on political black ops said the basic goal is to remain anonymous.

"When you make scurrilous attacks against your opponents, you always try to keep it on the down low," author Joe Cummins said in an interview.

One person collaborating with the Elections Canada investigation into "Pierre Poutine" added: "Whoever did this is quite unsophisticated."

A series of search warrants made public this week show the fraudulent robo-calls were lodged around 10 a.m. on May 2. Two days later, Mr. Mathews started digging into the phone number – 450-760-7746 – that appeared on the call display of complainants. Mr. Mathews also benefited from the fact that one voter, Judith Strommer, has a system that directly transferred voice messages to her computer as an audio file, which she provided to Elections Canada.

Mr. Mathews contacted Bell Canada Corporate Security and quickly learned the phone was a disposable, pay-as-you-go device sold by subsidiary Virgin Mobile. He was also told the phone was registered in the name of "Pierre Poutine."

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To pry more information out of Bell on the phone's usage and owner, Mr. Mathews obtained a production order in an Ottawa courthouse on June 8. The company provided him with the "call detail records" for the phone – such as incoming and outgoing calls – but Bell had no information on the phone's sales record or owner, except a fake address on Separatist Avenue in Joliette, Que.

Still, the information provided by Bell showed there were no calls made from the phone on May 2, which confirmed Mr. Mathews' sense it was used for "spoofing," a technique that allows for the wrong number to show up on call displays.

The Elections Canada investigator then decided to focus on 10 calls made to two toll-free numbers from the disposable cellphone in the two days prior to the election. To find out exactly who received the calls, Mr. Mathews submitted a second production order on Sept. 7 to get Distributel Communicated Ltd. to provide details on the holders of the 1-866 and 1-877 numbers contacted by "Pierre Poutine."

The toll-free numbers brought Mr. Mathews to RackNine Inc., an Alberta firm that offers robo-call services and has a long history of working with right-wing political parties. In a statement, the firm said it is fully co-operating with the Elections Canada investigation.

"The individuals who abused RackNine's services attempted to hide their identity from RackNine itself," the statement said.

On Nov. 22, Mr. Mathews obtained a third production order, this time to get all of RackNine's information on the account that was created by "Pierre Poutine," who used a more legitimate sounding name in so doing. Elections Canada has likely obtained the credit-card number used to create the account, although it remains unknown if it was made with a prepaid card or whether the information on the card leads directly to an individual account.

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Whatever the situation, one of the voters who complained to Elections Canada said Mr. Mathews seems determined to follow all possible traces to get to "Pierre Poutine."

"He's very thorough in the questions that he asks," said a Guelph resident who has collaborated with the investigation. "I felt that he is genuinely trying to find out who was behind this."

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