India named origin of most robocalls, crackdown on US firms facilitating swindle
The United States has initiated legal actions in a landmark development against domestic telecom companies that allowed hundreds of millions of robocalls from abroad, mostly from India, that targeted the elderly and vulnerable for extortion with threats of arrest or jail for trumped-up crimes and offenses.
The US department of justice filed two civil action lawsuits in a federal court in New York Tuesday seeking temporary restraining orders against five US telecom companies and three individuals who are alleged to have allowed these robocalls into the United States (with toll-free outbound call-backs) as “gateway carriers” of phone calls over the Internet (Voice Over Internet Protocol or VOIP), despite repeated warnings.
A robocall is an automated telephone call which delivers a recorded message, typically on behalf of a political party or a telemarketing company.
No Indian entity or individual was named, but authorities traced most of these calls to India. One of the companies named in the complaint carried, for instance, 182 million of these calls from a single “India-based VOIP carrier conspirator”, according to one of the two complaints.
US authorities have previously prosecuted many Indians and those of Indian descent in relation to these scams — 21 of them were sentenced in a single case in 2018, for instance. More than 30 people were named as conspirators in India in the same case that also involved five India-based call-centers.
Indian authorities have cooperated in the crackdown with raids and arrests in India. Announcing the lawsuits, Assistant attorney general Jody Hunt said, “We look forward to working closely with law enforcement colleagues in India and elsewhere around the world to identify those behind these calls so that we can bring them to justice”.
US investigators have identified at least six types of scams conducted through these robocalls: extort victims with the threat of arrest or jail for fake income tax fraud; get them to transfer money for safekeeping because of compromised Social Security Number; help with tech support; demand fines for incomplete immigration document or related lapses; make victims pay a fee for clearing some hurdle in the way of pre-approved loans; and paying off foreign government law enforcement pursuing some case.
The elderly and vulnerable are the targets of these “imposter scams” mostly, which have been called top frauds in the United States by the Federal Trade Commission, a regulatory body.
Investigators had been focussed thus far on the network of people who collected the extorted amounts in the US and their recipients in India, or some other off-shore location, but the lawsuits announced Tuesday mark a significant shift in the crackdown to focus on their US-based facilitators.
“We are using all available tools and resources to stop foreign call center scammers — and for the first time their US-based enablers — from conning elderly and vulnerable victims in New York and throughout the United States,” said Richard Donoghue, the lead federal prosecutor as US attorney.
One complaint named defendants Nicholas Palumbo and Natasha Palumbo of Arizona and their two companies Ecommerce National LLC that is also called TollFreeDeals.com and SIP Retail. The other named Jon Kahen of New York and his three firms Voicecom Inc., Global Telecommunication Services Inc. and KAT Telecom Inc (also known as IP Dish).
As “gateway carriers”, these companies served as the interface between Indian callers and recipients and American carriers such as Verizon and AT&T, letting several millions of daily robocalls to go through, with call-backs, for a certain fee. The complaint against TollFreeDeals alleged it carried 425 million robocalls in a sample period of 29 days.
Most of these calls originated in India allegedly. Between May and June 2019, TollFreeDeals transmitted 143 million calls from a single India-based entity — 20% of them were Social Security Number frauds and 35% were loan approval scams, and the rest were a mix of tech support, income tax fraud and others.