Justice Department charges dozens in massive Indian call center scheme

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U.S. prosecutors have charged 61 people in connection with a scheme in which people in call centers abroad posed as IRS or Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials and threatened arrests or fines for those who did not pay them.

By Matt Zapotosky, washingtonpost.com

The callers in India, claiming to be officials with the Internal Revenue Service or immigration services, would present those who answered the phone with an ultimatum. Pay us, or we’ll fine you, deport you or arrest you.

Their network was expansive, and their work lucrative. Justice Department officials announced charges against 61 people and entities Thursday and said the call center scheme had scammed at least 15,000 victims out of more than $250 million.

Phone scams are not new, but the breadth and sophistication of this one is notable. Justice Department officials said the defendants — 24 of them based in the United States — ran at least five call center groups overseas. Leslie Caldwell, the assistant attorney general in charge of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, said she hoped the efforts of U.S. and Indian authorities would put a dent in the robust industry of phone scammers.

“We have seen a drop-off in the success rate of these scams,” Caldwell said.

U.S. authorities said they arrested 20 people in this country and carried out nine search warrants Thursday. A few others involved were already in custody. Earlier this month, in a separate case, police in Mumbai raided a call center and detained 770 employees for questioning. The Justice Department said that it was focused on a network of call centers in Ahmedabad and that some of the centers’ owners have been charged.

A grand jury in federal court in the Southern District of Texas returned an indictment in the case on Oct. 19. Officials announced the unsealing of it on Thursday. The charges against those involved include conspiracy to commit identity theft, false personation of an officer of the United States, wire fraud and money laundering.

Bruce Foucart, assistant director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s homeland security investigations, said the scammers conducted online research on potential targets using Facebook and other online sources and bilked “savvy, successful and law-abiding people.” He said they went to “frightening lengths” to ensure the success of their scheme.

In one instance, Foucart said, scammers convinced a Southern California woman with cancer that police would show up at her workplace for purported unpaid tax bills stemming from her medical treatment. She paid the scammers $7,000, Foucart said.

In another instance, he said, when a man did not respond to phone demands for four years of purported back taxes, the scammers called 911 posing as the man and told the dispatcher he was armed and wanted to kill police. Armed officers showed up at the man’s house, where his daughter was home alone, Foucart said.

“They convey authority and a sense of urgency that leaves their victims terrified,” he said.

Those involved had a network of U.S.-based co-conspirators who would liquidate and launder the ill-gotten gains by buying prepaid debit cards, which they often registered using the personal information of identity-theft victims. They also would send wire transfers using fake names and use money transferring methods known as “hawalas,” in which money is effectively moved internationally outside the U.S. banking system.

Caldwell said the scammers were able to display their numbers on caller ID systems as being from the U.S. government, though she said no government agency would call demanding money as they did.

“If you get one of these calls,” she said, “it is not the U.S. government calling you.”

Authorities said callers also sometimes would defraud victims by offering small, short-term loans or telling them they were eligible for grants, then requesting a processing fee or a good-faith deposit to demonstrate the victims’ ability to pay it back. The callers would pocket that money and never provide the grant or loan, authorities said.

Caldwell said that authorities would seek to recover the money that was stolen, but that doing so might be difficult, and that it is possible that victims would not be repaid.

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