US court awards 21 Indians up to 20 years in jail for call centre scam
US authorities announced on Friday the sentencing this week of 21 members of a “Telefraud Scam” run out of India-based call centres that defrauded Americans and legal immigrants of millions of dollars, threatening them with arrest, deportation, imprisonment and fines for “alleged” unpaid dues owed to the government.
All 21 sentenced are either Indians or naturalised Americans of Indian descent, and several of them have agreed to be deported back to India after the completion of their jail terms, up to 20 years for some. And all them were linked to call centres based in Ahmedabad. Five of them were sentenced on Friday by the same federal court in Texas that had sentenced the rest earlier in the week. Including three sentenced earlier, the total is up 24, making it perhaps the single largest arrest and sentencing of Indians and people of Indian descent in a single case.
Announcing the sentencing, the US department of justice said 32 India-based conspirators were also named in the indictment, but have not yet been arraigned — presumably because they remain in India. Five India-based call centres have also been named, with similar charges.
Indian authorities have been cooperating in this case. Many people were reportedly arrested and call centres found to be involved were shut down. An alleged leading member of the conspiracy is Sagar “Shaggy” Thakkar, who was arrested by Mumbai police in April 2017. He is alleged to have been in touch with Hardik Patel, a co-owner of one of the call centres involved and a key player who has been sentenced to more than 15 years.
They are said to have duped thousands of Americans of millions of dollars between 2012 and 2016, when they were put out of business, indicted, charged and arrested.
A senior police officer, who investigated the call centre scam busted by Thane police, said, “Our investigations did not lead us to Hardik Patel. He is not an accused in the case. We do not have any idea of his links with Sagar Thakkar.”
One of the world’s leaders in call-centre business, India has also emerged over the years as home to fraudsters and scammers using the same business model to target Americans. One US law enforcement agency found Indians behind tech support — when a virus alert freezes the screen, the number to call to unlock it has been traced in many occasions to India.
“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,” said attorney general Jeff Sessions, announcing the sentencing. “This case represents one of the most significant victories to date in our continuing efforts to combat elder fraud and the victimization of the most vulnerable members of the US public.”
The elderly and recent immigrants were the preferred targets of these fraudsters. Callers from the India-based call centres would call them up impersonating as officers of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS — the American version of the Indian income tax department) or the US Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS — the dreaded acronym for the US agency that oversees the entry, stay and exit of foreigners).
The victims were picked from data brokers and other sources, and were sometimes old women and men or recently naturalized immigrants. The callers, trained to perfection on an American accent, “threatened (them) with arrest, imprisonment, fines or deportation if they did not pay alleged monies owed to the government”.
Most victims paid up, agreeing to one of the payments methods offered by the scammers — to buy a prepaid stored value card or by wiring money. Those arrested and charged in the US were mostly “runners”, operatives who collected the extorted money and transferred it to Indian accomplices through a different and complex set of procedures.
Here is how the US justice department broke it down. “Once a victim provided payment, the call centres turned to a network of runners based in the United States to liquidate and launder the extorted funds as quickly as possible by purchasing reloadable cards or retrieving wire transfers.
“In a typical scenario, call centres directed runners to purchase these stored value reloadable cards and transmit the unique card number to India-based co-conspirators who registered the cards using the misappropriated personal identifying information (PII) of U.S. citizens.
“The India-based co-conspirators then loaded these cards with scam funds obtained from victims. The runners used the stored value cards to purchase money orders that they deposited into the bank account of another person.”
THE BIG FISH
Miteshkumar Patel (42): The Illinois resident was sentenced to serve 240 months in prison followed by three years of supervised release on the charge of money-laundering conspiracy. According to the factual basis of his plea agreement, Miteshkumar served as the manager of a Chicago-based crew of “runners” that liquidated and laundered fraud proceeds generated by callers at India-based call centers. Patel was held accountable for laundering between $9.5 and $25 million for the scheme.
Hardik Patel (31): Also from Illinois, he was sentenced to 188 months in prison followed by three years of supervised release on the charge of wire-fraud conspiracy. Hardik consented to removal to India upon completion of his prison term. According to the factual basis of his plea agreement, he was the co-owner and manager of an India-based call centre involved in the conspiracy. Hardik was held accountable for laundering between $3.5 and $9.5 million dollars for the scheme.
Sunny Joshi (47): The Texas resident was sentenced to 151 months in prison on the charge of money laundering conspiracy and 120 months in prison on the charge of naturalisation fraud (to run concurrently) followed by three years of supervised release. According to the factual basis of his plea agreement, Joshi was a member of a Houston-based crew of runners that he co-managed with his brother, co-defendant Mike Joshi alias Rajesh Bhatt. Joshi was held accountable for laundering between $3.5 and $9.5 million. Additionally, in connection with his sentence on the immigration charge, Judge Hittner entered an order revoking Joshi’s US citizenship and requiring him to surrender his certificate of naturalisation.