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US makes an example of Indian call center scam artists with stiff sentences

The worst offenders have been thrown behind bars for up to 20 years.

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File Photo

Call center scams have become a plague which targets citizens worldwide.

You may receive emails claiming you need to call a number to clear your PC of malware, pop-ups which scream at you in red text in order to "warn" you of viruses which have been detected, or cold caller "Windows support" teams may claim your system is compromised.

While many of us can detect such scams, in recent years, the game has evolved. Now, fraudsters claiming to be IRS, tax officials, law enforcement, the HMRC, or your bank, and may email or call you.

Once you've connected to a call center specializing in these scams, operators will tout "maintenance and security packages" for your PC, demand taxes you need to pay to avoid government action, and will sometimes attempt to dupe PC owners into installing TeamViewer -- which is legitimate remote control software -- and hand over the keys to lock PCs, only to be returned in demand for a fee.

There are countless scams out there, and while some of us are fighting back -- such as through bots which flood scammer lines -- preventing the plague from spreading is difficult to accomplish, and these scams often find the most success with the elderly and most vulnerable in our society.

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One of the major issues is that while a call center may be based in one country, the targets may be in another. This cross-border challenge was one faced by US prosecutors, who have recently sentenced 24 individuals for operating India-based scam call centers.

Last week, US law enforcement said that a call center scam operation has defrauded thousands of US citizens out of millions of dollars.

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Between 2012 and 2016, a number of call centers were established in Ahmedabad, India, in which operators impersonated the IRS and USCIS.

The fraudsters used information gathered from "data brokers and other sources," according to law enforcement, in order to threaten US victims with arrest, prison, fines, and deportation unless they paid money they apparently owed.

Victims were then instructed to wire cash or purchase prepaid cards.

Once the money was transferred, it was then up to a system of runners in the US to launder the funds as quickly as possible.

"In a typical scenario, call centers directed runners to purchase these stored value reloadable cards and transmit the unique card number to India-based co-conspirators who registered the cards using the misappropriated personal identifying information (PII) of US citizens," prosecutors say. "The India-based co-conspirators then loaded these cards with scam funds obtained from victims."

Funds made through wire transfers were retrieved through fake names and documents.

In total, 21 members of the scheme were sentenced for operating the call centers. Sentences imposed varied, but terms of imprisonment were set for up to 20 years.

Three other individuals were charged for being involved in the runner scheme and have also been sent behind bars.

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The criminal scheme made millions of dollars, and in order to send out the message that call center scams will not be tolerated, US law enforcement has not only set tough prison sentences but has also demanded a fortune in restitution.

In total, 22 defendants have been found jointly liable for damages and must pay back close to $9 million to victims who have been identified. Money judgments totaling over $72 million have been added to the bill and 21 individuals have had their assets seized.

"The stiff sentences imposed this week represent the culmination of the first-ever large-scale, multi-jurisdiction prosecution targeting the India call center scam industry," said Attorney General Sessions of the Department of Justice (DoJ). "The transnational criminal ring of fraudsters and money launderers who conspired to bilk older Americans, legal immigrants and many others out of their life savings through their lies, threats and financial schemes must recognize that all resources at the Department's disposal will be deployed to shut down these telefraud schemes, put those responsible in jail, and bring a measure of justice to the victims."

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