The Great Indian Con : Duping Americans In America !

BY R.K.MISRA

 A call centre racket operating out of India has been conning gullible Americans through bluff, bluster and fraud and by last estimates the accumulated amount may have crossed $500 million. First  brought to light in October; the revelations so far constitute a mere tip of the iceberg of such fraudulent operations flourishing in India, even after a belated crackdown. 

Though initially detected in Maharashtra, it is Gujarat which is emerging as the epi-centre of this nationwide, totally fraudulent operation which has been spewing black money like the persistent Delhi smog.

Skimming callers from these con-call centres impersonating a host of US official services officers would intimidate, bully, even cajole their victims in the US to pay up. Official agencies of both the central and state governments sat placid with their officers either complicit or ignorant until the American government brought matters to the notice of the Indian authorities. 

Five Ahmedabad based call centres and 61 individuals have been named in the initial indictment by the US justice department which has sought their extradition. These include 32 based in India and 20 in the US. Bulk of them are of indian origin .The tentacles, however  are spread much far and wide and so are the numbers of people involved  manifold higher than made out to be.

As per the indictment filed in the court of the southern district of Texas, over 15,000 victims lost money and  about 50,000 people had their identities misappropriated .Twenty of the scamsters have been arrested in the US while many have been arrested in India as well.

The kingpin of the racket is Sagar Thakkar alias saggy who in concert with a set of accomplices ran the complex web of call centres with recruitment and training centres countrywide. Sagar is on the run while his mentor Jagdish Kanani and technical head Akhilesh Singh have been nabbed.

The fraudster run con-call centre operators impersonated US Internal Revenue Service
(IRS) officers or US Citizen and Immigration Services(USCIS) officers intimidating gullible individuals into paying non-existent arrears, or bullied them into paying fines for lapses and lacunae the victims had not committed. The fraudsters were receiving leads from a non-resident Gujarati and the police suspect that Ashish Shah who used to run a call centre in Ahmedabad and had migrated to the US over a decade ago, was the one providing leads to the con-call centres here.

The modus operandi involved sending across a voice mail regarding dues or tax lapse providing a number to call back. After the targeted victim, chosen with care, did so he would be threatened with fines, imprisonment even deportation thus pressurizing him to pay up. The indictment states that in one case $ 136,000 was extorted from a single victim in Hayward, California. The scamsters had a bag full of fraudulent schemes on call to entrap intended victims.

This is not the first instance of con-call centres being run from Gujarat. In February 2012 the US Federal Trade Commission(FTC) had informed the Indian authorities that an Ahmedabad based call centre had made 8.5 million threat calls in less than an year  and had conned American citizens of $ five million. The local cops surprisingly remained cold to all the leads. The Ahmedabad cops have fared no better this time as well.

Though the raids at a Thane call centre on October 4 provided the leads to the Ahmedabad call centre operations ,in fact, it was this tip off  by the Maharashtra cops to their counterpart in Gujarat  that led to  the hurried folding up of the Ahmedabad call centre. This seems to have worked to the detriment of the bust up as the con-call fraudsters were forewarned from within the Ahmedabad police itself, insiders said.

In the aftermath of the raids on the Mira road and Thane call centres, which had reportedly been operating since 2013, a team of the Mumbai police swooped down on Ahmedabad, but ‘interests’ within the local police moved with lightning speed to not only ensure closure of at least five of these centres but also that the hard disc of the local operations also does not fall into the raiding party’s hands leading to spilling of the beans.

With the con-call centres virtually proving a hydra-headed monster-new ones surfacing for each one forced to close-and clues pointing to the active involvement of a senior cop, the Ahmedabad police commissioner A.K.Singh has set up a four member team of senior IPS officers under his own command. This panel will oversee investigations for probing inter-state links and ensuring inter-country coordination.

The absconding kingpin of the racket ,23 year old Sagar Thakkar who ran 20 call centres in Ahmedabad alone  with a minimum daily earning of over Rs two crores plus is reported to have enticed some key cops offering them ‘benami’ partnerships ranging from 15 to 25 per cent in individual centres .He was last seen in Azarbaijan, sources said.

This ensured that the call centres operated with impunity through the night. Raids were carried out on paper and only money changed hands. Now the complicit cops are in the cross-hairs of investigations. However with ‘haftas’  regularly feeding the local policing mechanism in exchange for protection and privilege there is little hope that the big police fish will be held accountable.

The ambit of the probe, nevertheless is now extending to cover other cities like Surat, Vadodara and Bhuj in what is suspected to be a byzantine, wholly illegal operation generating over Rs 100 crores every month. Sagar had brought an audi worth Rs 2.47 crore in an auction in Chandigarh and was given the key at the hands of  cricketer Virat Kohli.

Sagar who originally hails from Ahmedabad and had learnt the ropes while  employed with a local call centre while still in college , had planned five more centres in the city and is reported to have interviewed and shortlisted 150 people in Mumbai to be employed in them. 

These centres were planned to go operational in December this year. His employees had a cross-country profile, preferably girls, whose salaries with incentives crossed over Rs 70,000 per month. There was a hefty bonus attached on achievement of targets.

Another reason that Gujarat, particularly Ahmedabad, has emerged as the con-call capital of India is the established pipeline for fund transfers that has been in existence for decades due to the non-resident gujaratis(NRGs) settled in the US, Canada and other parts of the world. 

This was an age old common practice in Gujarat. The con-call racket operators improvised it to serve their own ends. Unscrupulous processing networks in either countries aided it for a price and gradually developed expertise in routing funds from a victim to a call centre operator. Since the crime was not accounted for on home ground, all parties enjoyed the ‘manna’ raining from yonder land.Last heard imprints of this racket have also emerged in China. 

The murky details are just about beginning to surface and one is likely to hear lots more in the days to come.
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