Callers for dol­lars: In­side In­dia’s scam call cen­ters Al­leged king­pin sought by In­dian po­lice

Kuwait Times - - BUSINESS -

In late Septem­ber, a woman in Na­tional City, Cal­i­for­nia, re­ceived a voice mes­sage on her phone say­ing she was in trou­ble with the In­ter­nal Rev­enue Ser­vice (IRS) over “tax eva­sion or tax fraud”.

Pan­ick­ing, she rang the num­ber and told a man who said he was from the IRS: “I can pay $500,” half the sum de­manded. “I could do a pay­ment plan. I just can’t pay all of it at once.” “Ma’am, you can pay $500 to­day it­self. You can do that?” the man asked, adding that lawyers would look at her ac­counts and work out a monthly pay­ment plan, but she had to pay half now.

In tran­scripts of the con­ver­sa­tion that in­ves­ti­ga­tors shared with Reuters, the man told her to keep the phone line open and drive to a nearby gro­cery store, where she bought $500 worth of iTunes gift cards and gave the ‘agent’ the re­demp­tion codes. She had just been scammed one of at least 15,000 peo­ple the US Jus­tice De­part­ment says lost more than $300 mil­lion in an “enor­mous and com­plex fraud” run­ning since 2013. The de­part­ment last month brought grand jury charges against 56 peo­ple in In­dia and the United States for “tele­fraud” scams run from fake call cen­ters in In­dia.

In­ves­ti­ga­tors have ar­rested 20 peo­ple in the United States, and In­dian au­thor­i­ties have made 75 ar­rests fol­low­ing Oc­to­ber raids on three premises in the Thane sub­urb of Mum­bai. Charges in­clude con­spir­acy to com­mit iden­tity theft, im­per­son­ation of an of­fi­cer of the United States, wire fraud and money laun­der­ing. In­dian po­lice say they are look­ing for Sa­gar Thakkar, a man in his early 30s also known as Shaggy, who they be­lieve mas­ter­minded the scam. Thakkar was also among those named by the US De­part­ment of Jus­tice. Reuters was un­able to con­tact Thakkar for com­ment; he is not known to have a lawyer, and po­lice be­lieve he fled to Dubai last month.

“We are try­ing to com­plete the pro­ce­dure to is­sue a red cor­ner no­tice for Thakkar,” Parag Manere, a deputy com­mis­sioner at Thane po­lice, told Reuters, re­fer­ring to an In­ter­pol ar­rest war­rant. Po­lice said Thakkar led a lav­ish lifestyle, fre­quent­ing 5-star ho­tels and driv­ing ex­pen­sive cars with pro­ceeds from the scam. He gave one, a 25 mil­lion ru­pee ($365,000) Audi R8, to his girl­friend. “We have seized an Audi car, and are try­ing to find other as­sets of Thakkar,” Manere said.

The FBI, which is in­volved in the in­ves­ti­ga­tions, de­clined to com­ment. The De­part­ment of Jus­tice did not re­spond to re­quests for com­ment for this ar­ti­cle. At a news con­fer­ence last month, As­sis­tant At­tor­ney Gen­eral Les­lie Cald­well said the US would seek the ex­tra­di­tion of sus­pects in In­dia, and warned oth­ers en­gaged in sim­i­lar schemes they could face jail terms. In in­ter­views be­fore the US charges were filed, po­lice, sus­pects and call cen­ter work­ers in In­dia told Reuters how the scam was run. Train­ing ma­te­ri­als and taped con­ver­sa­tions, which in­ves­ti­ga­tors be­lieve were made by call cen­ter in­struc­tors for train­ing pur­poses, shed some light on an op­er­a­tion aimed to ex­ploit the aged and gullible.

‘Taught to be tough’

“The rev­enue was un­pre­dictable. Some days were good, some were bad,” Haider Ali Ayub Mansuri, who said he man­aged op­er­a­tions at one fake call cen­ter, told Reuters as he was re­turned to jail in In­dia last month af­ter a court ex­tended his cus­tody. He is among the 75 ar­rested by In­dian po­lice. “On a good day, we ex­tracted as much as $20,000 from a sin­gle US cit­i­zen,” he said. In In­dia, the sheer scale of the op­er­a­tion sur­prised many. For months, hun­dreds of young men and women worked nights at sev­eral call cen­ters in Thane.

Callers posed as IRS of­fi­cers and threat­ened their vic­tims, of­ten newly-ar­rived im­mi­grants and the el­derly, into pay­ing fic­ti­tious tax penal­ties elec­tron­i­cally - some­times by buy­ing gift cards and turn­ing over the re­demp­tion codes, In­dian in­ves­ti­ga­tors said. “They used to blast out pre-recorded mes­sages to thou­sands of cit­i­zens who were asked to call back. When they called back, there was a cen­ter just like this,” said Manere at Thane po­lice.

Act­ing on a tip-off, po­lice raided premises in early Oc­to­ber as call cen­ter work­ers set­tled in for their shift. The build­ings housed seven call cen­ters, and over a few days more than 700 peo­ple were de­tained. Most have since been re­leased, but told not to leave the city. Callers bul­lied their vic­tims with the threat of ar­rest, jail, seized homes and con­fis­cated pass­ports. “There was one in­stance where an old lady was cry­ing,” be­cause she didn’t have the money to pay, said a for­mer call cen­ter worker who spoke only on con­di­tion of anonymity. “But we kept in­sist­ing on the money. We were taught to be tough,” he said. On a fol­low-up raid in Ahmed­abad, 500 kms north of Mum­bai, po­lice un­cov­ered what they be­lieve was “a nerve cen­tre for these cen­ters,” said Manere. “A lot of money has been trans­acted. It’s been go­ing on for a few years.” The po­lice raids found lit­tle in the way of doc­u­men­ta­tion, be­yond some train­ing ma­te­ri­als. An­other for­mer worker said this was likely be­cause call cen­ter man­agers stopped em­ploy­ees from bring­ing pens and phones to work. Reuters was un­able to in­de­pen­dently con­firm the ac­counts pro­vided by call cen­ter work­ers.

An­other for­mer worker, an eco­nom­ics grad­u­ate, told Reuters she took a job with­out know­ing what the cen­ter did. The 12,000 ru­pee ($180) monthly salary was well below the go­ing rate for a grad­u­ate, she said, but it was a job, and “peo­ple aren’t hir­ing.” She said sev­eral of her col­leagues looked as though they had just left high school. Her first week was spent in train­ing with floor man­agers. While callers spoke to their vic­tims, she said dozens of trainees squeezed in around the room, and had to mem­o­rize pages of di­a­logue for use on calls.

An­other for­mer em­ployee said his in­struc­tors told him his work was il­le­gal, but there was “noth­ing to worry about.” Callers made “fast money”, an­other for­mer caller told Reuters. In com­ments con­firmed by in­ves­ti­gat­ing of­fi­cer Mukund Ha­tote, the worker said: “For ev­ery dol­lar you brought in, you were given 2 ru­pees (around a third of a US cent).”

Peo­ple wanted to leave rather than be in­volved in some­thing they sus­pected was il­le­gal, he said, but car­ried on be­cause man­agers of­fered weekly in­cen­tives, such as cash or gad­gets, for meet­ing their tar­gets. — Reuters

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