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Indian gangs scamming elderly Americans, says US attorney general William Barr

US authorities have indicated and prosecuted many Indians for imposter scams involving the elderly and others, such as phony tech support rackets and Internal Revenue Service calls threatening incarceration for overdue income tax payments over the past some years.

world Updated: Apr 11, 2019 01:23 IST
Yashwant Raj and Shiv Sunny
Yashwant Raj and Shiv Sunny
Hindustan Times, Washington/New Delhi
William Barr,Indian gangs,US fraud
US attorney general William Barr testifies on the Justice Department's budget proposal before a House Appropriations Subcommittee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington on April 9.(REUTERS)

US attorney general William Barr has told lawmakers that large criminal organisations based in India are among those scamming the elderly in America and that he has set up a strike force to combat the growing menace that he called a “sleeping giant” of frauds.

US authorities have indicated and prosecuted many Indians for imposter scams, such as phony tech support rackets and Internal Revenue Service calls threatening incarceration for overdue income tax payments over past years. In the last six months, the Delhi Police have busted two such rackets and arrested 10 men allegedly involved in cheating Americans by spooking them about malware infecting their computers. “A lot of these scams [elder frauds] are perpetrated wholly within the United States,” Barr said during a congressional hearing on Tuesday, “but increasingly they are actually operated by international criminal organisations, a lot of them come out of India.”

There are signs, he added, of “organised crime, not the Cosa Nostra [the Sicilian mafia], but other kinds” of global organised criminals.

Speaking in Delhi after Barr’s remarks late on Tuesday, Rajeev Ranjan, an additional commissioner with the Delhi Police’s crime branch, said that the “existence of more such rackets in Delhi cannot be denied”.

“Even a school dropout can do it. All they have to do is pick up a US accent and be able to deliver a few sentences in English to convince the Americans that they are from the same country,” said Ranjan.

He said most such crimes go undetected as the victims don’t even realise they are being cheated by people sitting in India. “The victims have no wherewithal to pursue the case. Since the money cheated from them is usually small ($25-100), even their local police do not pursue it.”

Barr, who is the top law enforcement official in the US, said he was paying special attention to elder fraud. In his first term as AG, under then President George HW Bush, he had focussed on health care fraud as a “sleeping giant” and in his second term, working under President Donald Trump, he was focussed on elder fraud as a “sleeping giant” that had suddenly awoken into a “major area of criminality”; “It has mushroomed,” he said.

The elderly are trapped through pop-ups on the Internet warning them of malware in their computer that could access their personal information, when no such thing would have actually taken place. They would then go on to “fix it” for a hefty fee. In some cases, scamsters would call them posing as federal tax agents about unpaid dues. In some instance, callers trap the elderly on dating sites, or get in touch seeking help to bail out grandchildren in trouble.

Ranjan, however, said that the suspects arrested in Delhi in the recent past did not particularly target the elderly. “They had no way to know the age group of the victims. They targeted anyone seeking technical surveillance,” said Ranjan. One of the rackets busted in Delhi had dozens of people employed as they worked from make-shift call centres operating out of small flats in different parts of the national capital. Posing as US firms providing technical support, they found their victims by paying for top slots in Google search engines, police said about that case.

“In case the cheats did not find any problem in the computers of their victims, they would take control of the system through remote access, create a problem and then charge them for their services,” said a Delhi Police officer, asking not to be named.

Barr’s remarks came when he was responding to questions about the scams raised by both Republicans and Democrats, showing bipartisan concern about one of the most vulnerable sections of the population, the elderly, who Barr described them as people who do not have a “runway to recover when they lose their life’s savings”.

He added: “I have set up a strike force to go after the large criminal organisations that we think are behind this.”

There was no response from the justice department to a request for follow-up details about the attorney general’s remarks about India, and it could not immediately be ascertained if India would be a major target of his initiative.

Indian law enforcement agencies have cooperated with Americans to take down Indian wings of these scams, some of which were found to have been working out of call centres.

In 2017, a 24-year-old named Sagar Thakkar alias Shaggy was arrested for allegedly masterminding a ~1,900-crore call centre scam. It was a raid conducted by the Thane crime branch at a call centre on Mira Road in 2016 that brought to light the telefraud wherein US nationals were being cheated by call centre employees masquerading as Internal Revenue Service officials. Seventy people have been arrested over the incident so far, while 630 others were booked and later made witnesses in the case.

Thakkar roped in his childhood friends to form a network of floor managers, who ran the multi-million dollar con across cities, police said.

Barr’s predecessor Jeff Sessions announced the sentencing of 21 people of India descent in July 2018 running a “telefraud scam” in the US from five call centres in Ahmedabad. “The stiff sentences imposed this week represent the culmination of the first-ever large scale, multi-jurisdiction prosecution targeting the India call centre scam industry,” Sessions had said at the time. “This case represents one of the most significant victories to date in our continuing efforts to combat elder fraud and the victimisation of the most vulnerable members of the US public.”

(With inputs from Presley Thomas in Mumbai)

First Published: Apr 10, 2019 10:01 IST