This week, the BBC showed scammers at work in an Indian call centre, recorded by an activist who hacked into the company’s security cameras. Staff were seen laughing at their victims in the US and the UK. But who are these scammers, and how do they justify their actions?
Behind a pair of mirrored sunglasses, Piyush is telling me how he made a quarter of a million dollars.
“It was easy money,” he says, detailing how he bought fancy cars and wore designer clothes.
From a modest background, Piyush made a fortune by defrauding innocent victims at the other end of a phone.
“To become a rock star we have to do something,” he says.
“Become a thief?” I ask.
“Right,” he replies coolly.
Piyush meets me in a friend’s apartment, in one of Delhi’s richest neighbourhoods. The group of young men I’ve come to talk to all have one thing in common – they’ve worked in India’s scam call-centre industry.
The company Piyush worked for ran what is known as a “tech support scam”. It would send a pop-up to people’s screens, telling them their computer had been infected by a “pornographic virus” or other malware, and giving them a helpline number to call.
As panicking customers rang in, Piyush and his colleagues would milk them for money, to fix a problem that didn’t actually exist.
Piyush tells me that tricking people is an “art”.
“We used to target the old people,” he says.
“There are many old people in the US who don’t have families, are alone and are disabled, so it’s very easy to trick them.”
I look at this man sitting opposite me in his baggy jeans and hipster T-shirt and wonder how he could be so cold-hearted. How would he feel if his own grandparents were victims of scamming, I ask?
“Yeah, I will feel bad,” he says. “I did it because I needed money and that’s it.”
AG Bill Barr and FBI Director Christopher Wray announced this week that an unprecedented number of cases of fraud against senior Americans have been charged or prosecuted and announced a hotline where you can report suspected fraud and help them catch more of the crooks, often foreign crooks, stealing from older Americans.
From CBS News (good for them because I have seen very little elsewhere about this story from Tuesday):
Barr announces more than 400 charged for defrauding seniors over past year
Washington — More than 400 people have been charged with defrauding seniors out of more than $1 billion over the past year, the Justice Department revealed Tuesday. Attorney General William Barr announced the charges in Tampa on Tuesday at the Sun City Center Community Hall for seniors.
Barr explained why this issue has personal meaning for him. “I myself was used as a lure in a scam,” the attorney general told retirees. Before he became the nation’s 85th attorney general, the 1991 official photograph of Barr from his first stint in in the job in George H.W. Bush’s administration was used by scammers offering phony federal grants in exchange for money. “It was really heart-wrenching. People called in desperate hope that this was real,” Barr explained. “That crystalized the issue for me, and when I got to the department I wanted to make sure that this was one of our highest priorities to go after this.”
Barr has made elder fraud one of his top priorities as attorney general, and Tuesday’s announcement nearly doubles last year’s prosecutions.
Every U.S. attorney’s office across the country participated in either prosecuting or conducting proactive community outreach as part of the department’s sweep.
Scams targeting the elderly are usually foreign-based, like the “Nigerian prince” scheme or robocalls involving the impersonation of a U.S. government official who demands money from targets.
“The charges announced today demonstrate the great success of the Transnational Elder Fraud Strike Forceto identify and stop those who are targeting our senior communities from overseas,” said FBI Director Christopher Wray in a statement. “We’re committed to continuing our efforts to keep our elderly citizens safe, whether they’re being targeted door-to-door, over the phone, or online.”
And, see theFBI Press Releaseon the announcement which includes a link to an interactive US map so you can see where some of the 400 cases are being prosecuted.
As I have said on innumerable occasions the President should be highlighting this fraud-busting work of his Justice Department, like this Transnational Elder Fraud Strike Force, at every one of his rallies.
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He was on the run and we tracked him down in Singapore.
If you’ve ever gotten one of those calls where someone tells you they are from the IRS and you owe money, surely you hung up! However thousands of gullible people did not hang up and sent this Indian crook their hard-earned money.
Well one more of the international crooks ripping us off will now be behind bars.
Thanks to reader Charles for tipping me off about this story, hereis the US Justice Departmentnews about Hitesh Madhubhai Patel aka Hitesh Hinglaj, 43, of Ahmedabad, India:
(By the way, I like the fact that we are now seeing mention of the nationality of crooks more prominently mentioned sparing us from having to spend time playing the secret decoder ring game with the criminal’s name.)
Indian national convicted of role in call center scam that victimized thousands in the U.S.
HOUSTON – An Indian national has entered a guilty plea for his role in operating and funding India-based call centers which defrauded thousands of victims out of millions of dollars between 2013 and 2016.
Hitesh Madhubhai Patel aka Hitesh Hinglaj, 43, of Ahmedabad, India, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud as well as a general conspiracy to commit identification fraud, access device fraud, money laundering and to impersonate a federal officer or employee.
“Hitesh Patel played a prominent role in this massive, India-based fraud scheme that bilked vulnerable Americans out of millions of dollars,” said Assistant Attorney General Brian Benczkowski of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division. “This important resolution would not have occurred without the assistance of our Singaporean colleagues, to whom we extend our deep appreciation.”
Patel and his conspirators perpetrated a complex scheme in which employees from call centers in Ahmedabad, India, impersonated officials from the IRS and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). They also engaged in other telephone call scams designed to defraud victims throughout the United States. U.S. victims were threatened with arrest, imprisonment, fines or deportation if they did not pay alleged monies owed to the government.
Those who fell victim to the scammers were instructed how to provide payment, including by purchasing general purpose reloadable (GPR) cards or wiring money. Upon payment, the call centers would immediately turn to a network of “runners” based in the United States to liquidate and launder the fraudulently-obtained funds.
In his plea, Patel admitted to operating and funding several India-based call centers from which the fraud schemes were perpetrated, including organizational co-defendant call center HGLOBAL. Patel frequently corresponded by email and WhatsApp messaging with co-defendants to exchange credit card numbers, telephone scam scripts, deposit slips, payment information, call center operations information, instructions and bank account information. The scripts included impersonation of IRS, USCIS, Canada Revenue Agency and Australian Tax Office personnel as well as payday loan, U.S. government grant and debt collection fraud schemes.
Patel also received monthly income and expense reports to his personal email from the call centers and used his Indian cell phone number to access GPR cards through automated telephone systems on many occasions.
A co-defendant described Patel as “the top person in India and the boss for whom most of the other defendants worked.” Another co-defendant claimed Patel was arrested in India in 2016, but paid a bribe and was released. Additionally, Patel admitted he was accountable for approximately $25-65 million.
Patel was extradited from Singapore in April 2019 to face charges in this large-scale telefraud and money laundering scheme. Singapore authorities apprehended Patel at the request of the United States pursuant to a provisional arrest warrant in September 2018 after Patel flew there from India.
As I have said before, the President should regularly highlight all of the scams his Justice Department is busting.
This isn’t a juicy frauds and crooks story like some I’ve reported lately, but it is a useful one sent to me by a reader.
The FTC last week reported a summaryof what kinds of consumer frauds were trending and tells us which states are the most fraud-ridden (or at least the states where in 2018 people reported that they had been defrauded).
And get this…..
There was a 38% jump in the amount of money lost to fraud in 2018 over 2017, says the FTC!