U.S. law enforcement officials urged continued public vigilance against phone scams October 27 as they unsealed an indictment regarding five call centers in Ahmedabad, India, that they said perpetrated IRS and immigration-related impersonation schemes for nearly four years.
Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration J. Russell George joined Leslie R. Caldwell, assistant attorney general in the Justice Department's Criminal Division, and other officials at DOJ headquarters in Washington to discuss the indictment of 61 individuals and entities for alleged involvement in the organized criminal enterprise, which operated primarily in the United States and India.
It is unclear how the U.S. indictment, which resulted from a joint investigation by multiple federal, state, and local agencies, relates to a similar investigation by Indian authorities that included a widely reported October 4 raid of three call centers in an office building near Mumbai that were perpetrating IRS impersonation scams for at least one year. (Prior coverage .)
Caldwell said the U.S. case concerns "a different scheme than the one that the Indians . . . took an enforcement action" against, although she and George commended Indian authorities' efforts. During a later press call, TIGTA Deputy Inspector General for Investigations Timothy Camus said that U.S. authorities are seeking 23 individuals within the United States and have 21 in custody, including one who is hospitalized. He also confirmed that the departments of Justice and Homeland Security are making extradition requests to India regarding other defendants.
Some persons named as potential suspects in the Mumbai bust by Indian press reports are defendants in the U.S. indictment, including Sagar Thakar or Thakkar, aka Shaggy, whom Indian media have portrayed as the mastermind of a potentially vast network of call centers across India that was apparently based in Ahmedabad.
Camus acknowledged the overlap of some names but said there is no clear direct relationship between the two networks. U.S. officials determined that the five Ahmedabad call centers coordinated with each other but found no evidence that those centers coordinated with the three near Mumbai, Camus said.
The two operations might have used the same "runners," Camus said, using a term for U.S.-based collaborators involved in transferring illicit funds generated by the call centers. Caldwell said the scheme relied on prepaid debit cards falsely registered to 50,000 identity theft victims.
Camus added that U.S. investigators were skeptical that Shaggy, whom he said is only 23, was some sort of mastermind, given the criminal enterprise's high sophistication. The U.S. indictment states that Shaggy was a call center operator and payment processor -- roles ascribed to multiple other individual defendants.
However, Camus did say that U.S. authorities "certainly believe" that more nefarious call centers, perhaps a significant number, are still operating. TIGTA has multiple ongoing investigations regarding IRS impersonation scams, which it will discuss at a later time, he said.
Camus also noted that the recent trend of IRS impersonators and other phone scammers demanding payment in Apple iTunes gift cards would be covered in future investigative work. In August a federal law enforcement official speaking to Tax Analysts on condition of anonymity said that 70 to 90 percent of IRS scam payments have migrated to iTunes cards. (Prior coverage .)
The full scope of phone scams remains unknown, but the indictment suggests they may cost billions of dollars annually. Appearing alongside Caldwell and George, DHS Inspector General John Roth said the five call centers extorted more than $250 million from almost 15,000 victims.
However, Camus cautioned against fixating on those figures, given that U.S. authorities are still tying victims and their losses to the five Ahmedabad centers. He instead pointed to the indictment's estimate: "hundreds of millions of dollars."
Caldwell deflected a question about what proportion of phone scams targeting Americans the five call centers accounted for, saying that it would clearly have some impact and serve as a warning.
Camus said that since the Indian raid in early October, TIGTA has seen a significant decrease in the number of scam calls reported, but not in the total number of victims. Similarly, the Better Business Bureau on October 20 reported a huge drop in IRS scam calls reported to its Scam Tracker project following the Indian raid, from about 200 per week to 11.
Nathan J. Richman contributed to this article.
- DOJ announcement of indictment
- List of defendants and roles
- Caldwell's prepared remarks
- TIGTA release
- Release from Sens. Susan M. Collins, R-Maine, and Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.
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