U.S. authorities have charged 56 people and five companies operating call centres in India in a massive telephone scam that swindled people out of $300 million in the U.S. and possibly Canada.
The U.S. Justice Department announced Thursday that scam artists worked at five call centres in Ahmedabad, in western India, and would pose as officials with the Internal Revenue Service or U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Callers would tell unsuspecting victims they had failed to pay taxes or were at risk of deportation, and quick cash was needed to get out of trouble.
“This is a transnational problem, and demonstrates that modern criminals target Americans both from inside our borders and from abroad,” U.S. Assistant Attorney General Leslie Caldwell said in a statement.
“Only by working tirelessly to gather evidence, build cases and working closely with foreign law enforcement partners to ensure there are no safe havens can we effectively address these threats.”
The indictment, which was unsealed on Thursday, did not mention Canada directly but stated victims were in the “U.S. and elsewhere.”
RCMP Sgt. Penny Hermann said “there might be” a connection to Canada in the investigation.
“Victims have reported that, at times, a caller would identify themselves as an IRS agent to the victim, and then change tactics when he/she realized that in Canada there is no IRS,” Hermann said.
Thursday’s indictments came on the heels of 70 arrests in India earlier this month that targeted telephone scammers.
Hermann said following the arrests there has been a “huge decrease” in the number of complaints to the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre.
“In the nine weeks preceding the arrests, the reported losses were about $26,000 to $190,000 a week,” she said. “But after the arrests the reported arrests went down to $2,000 a week.”
Caldwell said suspects were arrested in multiple U.S. cities Thursday, and the Justice Department is seeking the extradition of defendants still in India. Those charged face offences including wire fraud, money laundering and false impersonation of an officer of the United States.
Investigators allege the suspects scammed more than 15,000 people into shelling out more than $300 million. They also allegedly stole personal identification information from 50,000 people.
The victims included an elderly woman in San Diego who handed over more than $12,000 after she was threatened with arrest if she didn’t pay for fictitious tax violations. A California man also paid $136,000 to resolve alleged tax violations after being called repeatedly over 20 days.
Investigators said in one case, a Colorado man did not respond to repeated demands that he withdraw funds to pay supposed back taxes. Scammers posing as him called 911 saying he was armed and looking to kill police officers, prompting law enforcement officers to surround his home.
U.S. officials commended victims for coming forward and said they hope this type of investigation warns others in the future.
“To potential victims, our message today is simple: U.S. government agencies do not make these types of calls, and if you receive one, contact law enforcement to report the suspected scam before you make a payment,” Peter Edge, executive associate director with Immigration and Customs Enforcement said in a statement.
With files from Adam Miller and The Associated Press