Sick of “Rachel from customer service?”
Tired of those calls about your car’s warranty?
Had it up to your eyeballs with the IRS calling about your “2016 income taxes?”
This story should bring a tear of joy to your eyes.
In Houston federal court on Thursday, the kingpin of an overseas “call center” that scammed thousands of people out of millions of dollars admitted to coordinating a three-year-operation that bilked thousands of people out of millions of dollars, an ending which was lauded by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions as the first time such a takedown had been made.
The scheme utilized callers at numerous facilities across India who used illegally obtained personal information to impersonate IRS and immigration officials.
These callers, who sounded very convincing, usually would call the most vulnerable, particularly elderly and would threaten them with arrest and jail if they did not pay off their “tax debt” owed to the U.S. government.
Hitesh Madhubhai Patel, 43, pleaded guilty to wire fraud conspiracy, general conspiracy to commit identification fraud, access device fraud, money laundering and impersonation of a federal officer, according to the Department of Justice.
“Hitesh Patel played a prominent role in this massive, India-base fraud scheme that bilked vulnerable Americans out of millions of dollars,” Assistant Attorney General Brian Benczkowski said.
Patel is scheduled to be sentenced on April3. He is looking at a sentence of up to 20 years in prison for the wire fraud conspiracy and five years for the general conspiracy. Both charges carry the possibility of a $250,000 fine.
Patel had been extradited from Singapore to face the charges for the scheme, which ran from 2013 to 2016.
According to the Houston Chronicle, 24 co-defendants in the scheme have been convicted in Texas, Arizona and Georgia, and sentenced to up to 20 years in prison. They have also been ordered to pay millions of dollars in restitution. Several other defendants based in India are awaiting prosecution.
Patel admitted in court that he had realized between $25 to $65 million from victims, according to a news release from the Justice Department.
One of Patel’s co-defendants said that Patel was “the top person in India and the boss for whom the other defendants worked,” according to law enforcement officials.
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The scam was run through numerous call centers in India. He admitted that he used email and the messaging app WhatsApp to communicate with other defendants, exchange credit card numbers, telephone scam scripts, deposit slips, payment information, all center operations information, instructions and bank account information.
The scripts not only alleged being from the IRS, but also from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, Canada Revenue Agency and the Australian Tax Office.
In the scam, callers claimed they were from the U.S. government and provided personal information about their targets. They would then demand thousands of dollars in “unpaid fines” be reimbursed on the spot, or victims would face dire consequences, such as arrest, public humiliation and deportation.
In one case, when a man would not give in to their demands, he was “swatted”; in other words, he found his home surrounded by police after the call center notified officers via 911 that he was armed and threatening to kill police officers.
Among the threats were fake deportation warrants, nonexistent arrest warrants and phony unpaid income taxes that needed immediate attention. Officials said that the scheme primarily targeted South Asian immigrants and elderly people.
Former Assistant Attorney General Leslie R. Caldwell, when the initial indictments were announced in 2016, said:
“They used a variety of schemes to trick frightened individuals over the phone by tapping into their worst fears—that they would be deported and they would face other problems with the U.S. government or state or local law enforcement.”
The scheme involved having victims buy reloadable money cards or wire money to those involved in the scheme. Victims were told they’d be arrested, jailed, fined or deported if they failed to do so.
The callers would actually talk people through the process and gave them very direct instructions on how to comply with the scheme. There was a network of so-called “runners” in the U.S. who liquidated and laundered the funds.
The cracking of the case was announced in 2016 by Former U.S. Attorney Ken Magidson, who explained that dozens of people and several overseas businesses had been indicted in the international scheme, which cheated more than 15,000 U.S. residents out of $300 million.
Despite repeated admonitions from law enforcement and other authorities in the U.S advising people not to fall for scams such as this, people continue to get victimized. At the time the arrests were announced, Caldwell noted that the government does not do business in the way these scammers conducted it.
“The U.S. government does not operate in this manner,” she said. “We never call to demand that money be loaded immediately onto prepaid cards. U.S. government agencies to not call to demand immediate payments to avoid deportation or to avoid arrest.”
She said it was easy for people to be duped.
“The scammers in this case and so many like this are convincing. They are menacing and they are ruthless in their pursuit of their victims,” said Bruce Foucart of ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations. “They convey authority and a sense of urgency that leaves their victims terrified.”
Among the victims in this case were an elderly San Diego woman who gave over $12,300 after she was threatened with arrest if she didn’t pay a phony penalty on a fictitious tax violation. Another man from California also paid $136,000 to resolve alleged tax violations after being called repeatedly for over 20 days.
Hopefully these arrests are just the tip of the iceberg and these scumbags get put out of business once and for all.