Crime Report

'Do you want a dispute?': How thousands of Americans lost money to fake call-centres in Thane

73 people have been arrested in the racket where US citizens were cheated out of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

It took just two days for J Roy (name changed) to figure out that all was not quite above board at the call centre he had just joined, having had several years' experience in business process outsourcing units or BPOs.

"It just didn't seem right," he told Scroll.in when he was brought to court on Monday.

Roy is among 73 men and women who have been arrested in a widespread call-centre racket busted in Thane district near Mumbai in which callers, posing as American tax agents, coerced victims in the US into paying up online after telling them that they had defaulted on their taxes. The police suspect that the roots of the racket go back to Ahmedabad and have said it could be much wider than what they have uncovered so far.

On Monday, all the arrested accused were produced before a Thane magistrate. Thirteen have been remanded to further police custody and the rest have been sent to judicial custody.

Murky business

The call centre that Roy worked at was one among more than 10 that have been raided in Thane district over the last week, starting from October 4. He had spent a month there and was due to get his salary this week, but the police swooped in on his centre.

Looking back, Roy said with a smile, he knew that “the American Internal Revenue Service doesn’t call anyone”.

With a script ready for employees that ranged from mildly threatening to downright aggressive, the goings on at these purported call centres were far from right.

The call-centre employees, posing as US Internal Revenue Service agents, would use Voice over Internet Protocol or VoIP – voice calls made using a web connection – and would tell their prospective victims that they had failed to pay their full taxes and would have to pay up or face further action. The convinced callers would make an online payment using a credit card.

Several thousand Americans – police are yet to estimate the number of victims – were conned into parting with small and large sums of money. The masterminds of the racket are still at large. The police said that about seven people had put their money into setting up these call centres and operating the racket. However, 73 mostly junior employees have been arrested so far. More than 630 are also under investigation.

The IRS regularly puts out advisories about fake calls such as the ones these centres were making. Despite this, in rented premises, the purported call centres managed to run a lucrative racket, that has fetched around Rs 500 crores in a year, according to reports.

From the script

Most of the callers were young men and women – in their 20s and 30s – who had responded to advertisements and flyers announcing openings at call centres or had heard of them through word-of-mouth. Knowledge of English was generally enough to get the job.

They were then primed with a script based on anticipated responses. Some of the conversations went like this:

Statement: Where are you calling me from?

Answer: I am calling you from the INTERNAL REVENUE SERVICE HEADQUARTERS which is located in Washington DC.

Statement: Where was the miscalculation (error) found?

Answer: Well, Mr customer let me make you aware that we are calling you from the investigation departments and not from the audit department and hence we cannot help you to where did you do the mistakes (sic).

Employees were trained in how to sound menacing, and taught to ask questions like, "What is your intention now, would you like to resolve this case or are you looking for a dispute?”

Callers who asked why they had not been sent the paperwork by mail or heard about the problem earlier would be told that attempts had been made to reach them, but to no avail. They would also be told no further paperwork could be sent across as it was lying in the court house.

Those who sought to speak to their accountants would be told this meant the IRS could charge them up to $50,000 as a fine and inform their employers and the media.

An accent trainer, among those arrested last week, helped the callers work on their diction and delivery and develop what the trainer described as a “neutral sounding" accent – something that would presumably not peg them to a specific country.

The scripts also took into possible scenarios where people would not agree to pay up easily and gave instructions on how to tackle those. For instance:

Scenario 1

Answer: I have already paid the IRS

Caller: What we are investigating about is the miscalculation seen in your tax filed which makes us assume your intention was to defraud to IRS and the income tax law (sic).

Scenario 2

Statement: I am not going to make any payment over the phone.

Answer: …I am here to guide you so that you can go ahead and make the payment and resolve the matter outside the court house so we can go ahead and cancel the arrest warrant.”

Scenario 3

Statement: My accountant files my taxes.

Answer: Well Mr Customer, let me make aware that federal government has not allow to hire any third party for your taxes (sic)… the law suit is filed against you. So you are the responsible person for it.”

Tell-tale signs

A relative said his nephew had worked in call centres before this and was trained to simply repeat what they had been taught without thinking too much. “That is how these things usually work,” he said.

For employees, however, there were several tell-tale signs. There were no formal identity badges, no work contract at the time of joining and most significantly, no salary slips. Employees were paid in cash, with salaries starting from Rs 10,000 monthly for about eight hours of work. This was alluring for school dropouts or young people from lower-middle-class families.

"We started to realise something was wrong, but everyone is tempted by money," said the relative of one of the accused. “When a young man has a steady income it is good for him and for the family.”

An employee who worked at one of the raided call centres on a night shift had not met his wife in a month before he was arrested last week. “He said to me, ‘I have to show them I am working hard,” his wife told Scroll.in. “His job was simply to supervise, he did not make calls.”

One of the accused claimed they realised something was wrong only about four or five days before the police raided the centres. Many had been working at the establishments for just a couple of months or a few weeks and were waiting for their salaries.

“Our children are also victims,” said a relative of one of the arrested accused. “They were only employees, doing as they were told.”

Big fish at large

The relative of another employee said: “The police needs to go after the masterminds, not the employees, who were the small fry.”

The police, however, believe that it is unlikely that the employees had no clue what was going on.

The police said that a team has just returned from Ahmedabad, the possible starting point of the operation.

“There are likely to be more [such fraudulent centres],” said Param Bir Singh, Thane commissioner of police.

The raids were conducted over the past week in Thane. Many of the centres were renting out premises in a single building. “It is an industry,” said a senior police official. “We have learnt so much in investigating this case.”

The three First Information Reports registered in the case so far include charges of cheating and cheating by impersonation under the Indian Penal Code and sections of the Information Technology Act, including those related to sending menacing messages.

Police conducted the raids based on tip-offs they received and also found that the call centres had been operating without the requisite permissions.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation in the US is expected to formally contact the Thane police in connection with the scam.

Police estimate that the racket was running for a year, but say that further details will only be gleaned once they nab the main accused in this case. The purported mastermind, believed to have fled the country, is a 23-year-old identified as Sagar Thakkar alias Shaggy, who has no previous criminal record, police said.

Some reports said that some “gang members” were operating from the US, but the police did not comment on this.

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