Scare and sell: Here’s how an Indian call centre cheated foreign computer owners
A tech support scam begins by planting a pop-up message in the target user’s web browser that alerts them to a so-called virus infection, employees and experts say.
Dusk is falling on Gurgaon’s Sohna Road, an upscale neighbourhood crammed with gleaming steel-and-concrete buildings that power India’s software surge and offer hopes of a brighter future to millions.
It’s about 5pm. Backpack-laden young men and women pour out of cabs and auto-rickshaws and take a lift to the sixth-floor call centre of Saburi TLC, past a company motto inscribed in bright orange, “If you work only for money, you will never make it”.
In 15 minutes, they diffuse into a maze of blue-and-white cubicles where they will spend the next eight hours with a computer, a desk phone and a pair of black headphones.
There are hundreds of similar call centres in the neighbourhood. But Saburi TLC is different, a shadowy outfit accused of being among the biggest players in a thriving tech-support fraud that cons unsuspecting foreigners into buying expensive security software for their perfectly normal computers.
The charges against Saburi TLC are just the tip of a growing rot in India’s $110-billion business process outsourcing (BPO) industry that is being potentially hollowed out by fraud businesses thriving in the absence of strong regulation and oversight.
Many of these dodgy businesses operate a stone’s throw away from major companies in places such as Gurgaon, Pune and Bengaluru but are notoriously difficult to pin down because the victims are foreigners who can’t file police complaints in India, and the firms are often run out of flats or nondescript locations by a handful of people.
If the trend isn’t checked, experts warn, India might soon join the ranks of Nigeria and Vietnam where employment shrunk rapidly as investor confidence eroded because of high cybercrime rates and angry customers.
“Anyone doing bad things is not good for us because the impression gets generalised. In the mind of those affected by the scam it’s not a company or a person, it becomes a country,” says Raman Roy, chairman of India’s main IT industry lobby NASSCOM.
Testimonies of many victims float on the internet, in tech blogs, chat rooms and even with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the United States’ consumer protection agency that has investigated several Indian BPOs for fraud.
Ask Timothy Gatewood of Texas, United States. “I got a pop-up notice from Apple saying ‘you have virus infecting computer, call this number’. So I called the number, and it was some guy with an Indian accent,” the 53-year-old Houston-based DJ told Hindustan Times.
“He said he was a representative of Apple, and he’s with this company, Tech Live Connect. I paid them 200 dollars, all they did was delete a couple (of) files, and maybe put a couple (of) apps from the App store, and said, there you go, bada-boom bada-bing, 200-something dollars!”
Tech Live Connect’s call centre is run by Saburi TLC whose promoter and CEO Anuj Jain has heard of these complaints but denies that the blame lies with his company.
“Some of our ex-employees impersonate us, which is why you see the complaints,” Jain tells HT, sitting in a corner office with a wall full of certificates praising his achievements in the BPO industry. “They steal data from us and start calling our clients.”
Jain, 42, says Tech Live Connect (TLC), a Singapore-based company, is one of Saburi TLC’s “major clients”, handling their customer calls out of its call centre in Gurgaon. He denies any other links between the two companies.
But an HT investigation and interviews with former and present employees of Saburi TLC reveal the two companies are intimately connected.
A SCARE-AND-SELL INDUSTRY
In the satellite city of Gurgaon, an hour’s drive from downtown New Delhi, Saburi TLC’s 20,000-sqft is manned by mostly fresh-out-of-college graduates, eager for a job and who don’t ask too many questions.
A tech support scam begins by planting a pop-up message in the target user’s web browser that alerts them to a so-called virus infection, employees and experts say. The pop-up alarms the user, sometimes by locking their devices, forcing them to call a phone number flashing in the message.
The call is picked up by someone like Vikas Tanwar*.
“You ask for remote access and show them temp files, run fake software to show fabricated security threats, and convince them their computer is corrupt. Then we tell them that if you don’t buy our security products, the computer will become unusable,” says Tanwar, who knew the scare-and-sell script by heart by the end of his first week at Saburi TLC.
“We know there are no viruses. User ko to nahi pata (the user has no idea),” says Anshul, 26, who gave only one name and who joined the company five years ago. Like other employees – past and present – HT spoke to Anshul wants to hide his name. “They will have me killed.”
Tanwar, a 24-year-old commerce graduate, joined the company in November 2016. He says the brief was clear: To con every caller of anywhere between 10 and 500 dollars.
“The moment you put on your headphones, your supervisor tells you ‘you are scammers. Aapko customer ko fasana hai, kuch bhi kar ke… (you have to trap the customer, no matter how),” says Tanwar, who quit Saburi TLC in February.
It’s on the back of millions of English-speaking, tech-savvy college graduates like Anshul and Tanwar that the Indian BPO industry has grown to be a behemoth. But a paucity of jobs, easy access to foreign clients and lax regulation have caused an explosion in cyber-related crimes – exemplified last year when a Thane call centre was busted by Indian and US police for cheating 6,500 US nationals of almost $100 million.
MAZE OF DECEIT
Jain’s career maps the highs and lows of the Indian BPO industry, from a global powerhouse to a potential destination for the desperate and devious. From 2002 to 2011, Jain worked for a series of companies at the top of the BPO ladder, from Wipro to Quattro. Then, in November 2011, he launched Saburi TLC.
The first is registered in India under Jain’s name and the second, Tech Live Connect, in Singapore under the name of Brian Cotter, a former colleague of Jain’s at Quattro who left around the same time as him.
“No one knows Saburi TLC as a brand. So we reach out to clients as Tech Live Connect, who see us as one company,” says Jain.
But that argument flies in the face of evidence put together by HT.
Tech Live Connect is the owner of the domain, saburitlc.com — the official website of Saburi TLC. It’s also from an email ID registered with the domain techliveconnect.com that Jain used to communicate with HT. On LinkedIn and Facebook, Jain introduces himself as director and chairman of Tech Live Connect.
Jain and Tech Live Connect promoter Brian Cotter attribute the overlap to the “nature of partnership” between them. Cotter told HT that Saburi TLC handled its clients’ service and tech support calls.
BLOWING THE LID
To be sure, Saburi TLC’s operations include some legitimate services. Jain is the co-owner of Imagine Tressor, a premium reseller of Apple products with 11 stores across north India. He also runs two premium Apple service centres in and around Delhi.
In an industry where customer interface rarely goes beyond long distance calls, small legitimate operations often act as smokescreens for many fraudulent cyber businesses.
To capture the scam, an HT journalist called Tech Live Connect’s registered number to complain that his perfectly healthy Windows laptop was running slow.
He was first instructed to hand over remote access to the computer and then told, in an escalating tone of alarm, about a range of security threats, from “junk files” to “virus, malware, Trojan” to that his “computer has been hacked”.
The journalist was told his computer would be “unfixable” if he didn’t buy an $8 one-time fix followed by a year’s worth of security service from Tech Live Connect.
Had HT bought the security solution, Saburi TLC executives would have taken the customer through one of six or seven US-based payment gateways to deposit money in American bank accounts, says Tanwar, recapping steps he followed hundreds of times to extort money from unsuspecting clients.
“They would then launder it back to India,” he says. Tanwar thinks the call centre makes at least $5000 off the scam every day. Rajat Garg, a former Saburi TLC employee, says it makes $100,000 a day.
Tanwar made an average of 15 calls every day at Saburi TLC with a “target” of $500 on every call. “If you sell services worth $1000 dollars, you get 1000 rupees,” says Tanwar, who made Rs 20,000 in monthly salary but a far bigger amount in “incentives”.
HT also filed a request for information with the office of the US Freedom of Information Act, which revealed that the US FTC had received 699 consumer complaints against Tech Live Connect. The latest was filed on March 28 by a resident of Warner Robins, a city in the US state of Georgia, who narrated a harrowing tale of deceit and threats from Tech Live Connect. HT has copies of 50 such complaints.
Asked if Tech Live Connect was under investigation, FTC spokesman Frank Dorman told Hindustan Times: “All information about investigations is nonpublic, including whether or not there is an investigation.”
Better Business Bureau (BBB), a leading US consumer protection forum, set up a “business profile” of Tech Live Connect on its website after receiving multiple complaints against it.
“We especially do this if the company appears to have a pattern of complaints as was the case with Tech Live Connect,” BBB spokeswoman Katherine Hutt told HT. Some of these complaints with BBB were resolved, mostly with a refund. Former Saburi TLC employees told HT this was done to avoid trouble and manage online reputation.
A 2016 Stony Brook University study showed that 86% of all tech scams originated in India.
“Unfortunately, the scale of such scams originating from India is huge,” says Roy, also the founder of Quatrro, a big name in India’s BPO industry. “A small group of people with an internet connection and VoIP numbers can launch a tech support scam.”
And the art of scamming is not at all difficult to learn, says Garg, a former Saburi TLC employee. According to Garg, “even a 10th pass can get a job at TLC.”
Garg, 26, says he has worked for many such scam outfits. In 2012, he joined Saburi TLC but left in a year to join iYogi, a big name in Indian tech support, for a better salary. In 2015, he left iYogi after a lawsuit was filed against the company in the United States for running a tech support scam.
In 2016, he landed at Prime Technologies but lost his job the same year after founder Aman Mehndiratta – an ex-Saburi TLC employee -- was convicted in a US court of routing fraud money to India using the bank account of an American co-conspirator.
But why is it so difficult to shut down such companies? A major reason is the ease with which these companies can be launched or re-launched, experts say.
“While call center or tech center crimes are targeting individual victims outside India, we believe that these crimes pose a threat to the credibility of the tech sector and should be treated under a large scale umbrella of an economic offense as opposed to an individual fraud investigation,” said Suhel Daud, an FBI agent who serves as assistant legal attaché at the American embassy in New Delhi.
Apple and Microsoft know about the scale of the fraud. A Microsoft spokesperson told HT it has a dedicated online portal to report tech support scams, which receives an average of 10,000 consumer complaints a month. To a detailed questionnaire from HT, Apple just said, “We take security very seriously”.
Vakul Sharma, an advocate at the Supreme Court, says India has the legal framework, but the complainants need to be physically present in an Indian court or send a lawyer as a representative. Hardly any American victim of tech scams do that.
In 2012, the US FTC charged six tech support firms with fraud in a US district court-- five in India alone. In 2014, a US court ordered the six companies to pay more than $5.1 million dollars in damages. It was not clear if these companies paid up.
“We have met with the CBI, and with local law enforcement officials, on many occasions and hope to coordinate our efforts to halt these frauds and the damage they do to consumers as well as the reputation of India’s call center industry,” Dorman told HT in an email.
But the industry isn’t likely to slow down anytime soon, say people who have been a part of it.
“It’s very easy to scare Americans,” says Amit Singhal, who worked at Saburi TLC between 2012 and 2013.
“Bade bhole hote hain (They are very gullible).”
(Input from Harry Stevens in NEW DELHI and Yashwant Raj in WASHINGTON)
*Names of current and former Saburi TLC employees changed to protect identity
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