Suspects in the Indian call center scam being taken to a court in Thane on the outskirts of Mumbai. Photo: Reuters/Danish Siddiqui
Suspects in the Indian call center scam being taken to a court in Thane on the outskirts of Mumbai. Photo: Reuters/Danish Siddiqui

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 US$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 US$500 today. Can you 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.

The man told her to keep the phone line open and drive to a nearby grocery store, where she bought US$500 worth of iTunes gift cards and gave the “IRS agent” the redemption codes.

She had just been scammed — one of at least 15,000 people the US Justice Department says lost more than US$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 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. 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, said, 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 a 25 million rupee (US$365,000) Audi R8 to his girlfriend. “We have seized an Audi car, and are trying to find other assets of Thakkar,” Manere said.

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 could face jail terms.

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,” according to Haider Ali Ayub Mansuri, who said he managed operations at one call center. 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 US$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.

Acting on a tip-off, police raided premises in Thane 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.

Several of her colleagues looked as though they had just left high school

Callers bullied their victims with the threat of arrest, jail, seized homes and confiscated passports.

One former worker, an economics graduate, said she took a job without knowing what the center did. The 12,000 rupee (US$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 she 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.”

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