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The Huge Call Centre Scam

October 20, 2016 09:39 IST

An industry of scamsters is operating in the guise of call centres in India, report Ranjita Ganesan, Dhruv Munjal and Nikita Puri.

For the last few months, hundreds of people had been pulling night shifts at offices in Mira Road, the northernmost appendage of Mumbai.

They had landed jobs in call centres, friends and family were informed, drawing salaries of Rs 12,000 to Rs 30,000. They were young men and women, educated up to Class 10 or 12, with a dithering knowledge of English.

The workplace was spread across seven storeys of a new commercial building. Between 7 pm and 4.30 am, five days a week, they would field calls from people in various parts of the United States, who enquired about taxes they owed to the Internal Revenue Service.

It all seemed quite professional, except the connection between IRS and these call centres is about as authentic as the Loch Ness monster.

Dozens of fake companies posing as legitimate helplines have popped up with the sole purpose of 'vishing.'

They use the telephone to dupe people outside and within India into divulging personal information that helps with identity theft.

Seven centres on Mira Road, including the one described earlier, were busted by the Thane police in the first week of October.

Some 70 employees were arrested, the rest detained, and more than 850 hard disks, DVRs, high-end servers, laptops and equipment worth Rs 1 crore (Rs 10 million) were seized.

Also found were scripts that taught callers how to respond in a variety of potential scenarios.

Increasing incidents of scam calls led the US Federal Trade Commission to warn citizens that if the IRS wanted to contact them, it would do so by mail, and it would not demand credit card or Social Security numbers over the phone.

In one public notice, the FTC said 'a caller who creates a sense of urgency or uses high-pressure tactics is probably a scam artist.'

Naming the callers 'artists' of any kind may be an unworthy compliment. While the set-up was sophisticated, their methods were not always masterful.

The scammers had computers, fitted with headsets and a device that directed calls from the United States to them.

At work, they would not be allowed to log into Facebook or Gmail. Part of office decor usually was a whiteboard bearing the logo of the IRS, and a list of United States area codes.

Daily, employees would send blasts of voicemails from an 'Officer Julie Smith' or 'Officer Steve Martin' telling people they owed a large sum to the tax department, and leaving a number to call back.

The phone database was reportedly purchased from the Dark Web.

Most receivers saw right through the messages that had a perceptible Indian accent, either ignoring them or cross-checking their payment history and the IRS Web site.

Some called back, but quickly spotted the trick. A few fell for it.

In an eight-hour shift, the employees could answer about five or six inbound calls from the gullible.

In conversations lasting anywhere between 30 minutes and six hours, they first read out a made-up affidavit from the IRS, and threatened the victims with police action if they hung up.

Later, they softened their stand, asking a few questions, and offering to help 'stop the warrant and get this thing resolved.'

Once a victim had been reeled in sufficiently, the 'dialler' handed the call to the more-experienced 'closer' who proposed a settlement of sorts.

Callers were convinced to buy Vanilla gift cards or iTunes cards for $500 to $9,000, and share the PIN numbers. That money would be deposited into accounts maintained by kingpins, who could be operating from abroad.

Each call centre brought in roughly Rs 1 crore (Rs 10 million) to Rs 2 crore (Rs 20 million) a day, according to police estimates.

The top bosses would allegedly transfer 75 per cent of the sum to the local partners who run these businesses day-to-day, while retaining the rest.

During the course of the day, they would get updates on the day's performance from local call centre owners and some floor managers on WhatsApp.

The higher rung locally is composed of young people, mostly 24 to 28 years of age. They bought flashy cars; one even drove a Hummer.

Unit 1 of the Thane crime branch, where the call centre crackdowns were masterminded, has perhaps one of the best safeguards against vishing: Phone signals tend to wither here.

Days are busier than usual now.

Assistant Commissioner of Police Mukund Hatote was among those who raided the centres late at night. He has since received e-mails from the United States, some congratulating the police and others sharing their woes.

One of the victims, a woman of 65, died of a heart attack, he says. Another victim was pressured for four hours until he parted with $4,600.

"The call recordings are bizarre. They just talk non-stop, like "popat panchi (parrots)," Hatote says with a laugh.

While falling for the scam seems ludicrous, the US Treasury inspector general for tax administration estimates more than 5,000 victims have lost over $26 million to it in the past two years, according to the US-based non-profit organisation, Better Business Bureau.

IRS officials are in touch with Thane police over the investigation.

The latest bust is not the first of its kind.

Last year, Pennsylvania's Sahil Patel was sentenced to prison for 14 years for controlling a similar scam in India since 2011.

Besides the IRS, there are imposters of Microsoft tech support, debt collectors, and even the Australian tax office.

Such scams are also believed to be running out of Ahmedabad, Bhavnagar, Surat, Noida and Gurgaon.

Less prominent job sites still carry ads, often poorly worded, asking for 'closers for payday and IRS.' People with 'hardcore aggression to earn money' are encouraged to apply.

Some of these outfits prey on locals.

In the summer of 2014, Nitish Agarwal, 26, who had just graduated in computer engineering from a little-known university in Meerut, was fretting over the future. He had drawn a blank in the handful of campus interviews. He uploaded his resume on an engineering job portal, but felt the dream of working for a major technology firm turning to dust.

One afternoon, he received a phone call. The man on the other side, one who went by the surname Sareen, pitched him a job that involved offering 'technical support' to customers with new computers.

Sareen, Agarwal recalls, spoke in near impeccable English, like an executive from some big firm. "He wasn't offering a lot of money, Rs 22,000 a month, but it seemed a good start."

On day one, he was handed a script to memorise. Agarwal was also told about the details of a PayPal account through which the customers had to pay for the services that they were being given, which included the cleaning up of viruses and malware from their systems.

For the next two weeks, he made calls from a database with some 500 names, sticking to the script.

Most people who were called, he adds, ended up paying the money. Each customer was shelling out Rs 2,500 on an average.

It was much later that Agarwal realised that the call centre where he was working, located in a narrow, bustling lane in east Delhi's Laxmi Nagar, was duping customers by planting viruses that actually did not exist.

Giving him company were 20 others, some of whom, much like Agarwal, say they did not know what they were doing.

"They were using something akin to TeamViewer (the desktop sharing software) but way more sophisticated. In a way, the customer was seeing what was being shown to them," says Agarwal.

"The moment you tell people that their computer safety can be compromised, they get really scared."

Fearing a police clampdown, Agarwal quit the job after a month. He never got to meet Sareen.

"The mastermind never exposes himself to the employees. He always has a group of people to carry out his operations for him," says Agarwal.

Residents of Laxmi Nagar say the call centre abruptly wound up operations late last year. Nobody knows why.

A number of call centres line this congested neighbourhood, where buffaloes are tethered on one side of the street and rickshaw-pullers struggle to not crash into each other.

Rentals in the area are cheap: A 450 to 500 sq ft space costs no more than Rs 30,000 a month.

The consequences for the victims are devastating.

In the early days of January, when film and theatre actor Prakash Belawadi was working and his wife was on a call, she kept asking if he had received any message on his cell phone.

"I thought she was booking something online, so I gave her the OTP I had just received. Since I was writing something, I asked her to move to the other room and talk. I then heard her give the OTP to someone and quickly went to ask who she was speaking with," says Belawadi.

When Belawadi quizzed the man on the other end, a person who claimed to be from Citibank, he was told that it was just procedural; after all, his wife's details had not been updated in some time.

"By the time I told him I would register a case against him, the money had been deducted," he says.

In a matter of seconds, the Belawadis had lost Rs 90,000, the maximum limit on her card. "The feeling of being cheated, that's really bad," says Belawadi.

That sinking feeling drove Palak V, a mother of two and wife of an IT professional, to suicide recently.

She had paid Rs 11 lakh (Rs 1.1 million) to claim prize money of Rs 45 lakh (Rs 4.5 million) which never existed.

Before that in March, a 65-year-old woman lost Rs 38 lakh (Rs 3.8 million), all of her retirement savings, to a similar con.

Advocate Prashant Mali, a cyber law specialist who is advising the Thane police, says the police everywhere should be vigilant about the specific processes running in each call centre in their jurisdiction.

Some reckon employees who want to report to the police may have been blackmailed.

According to a report by security company TAC that was published last year, there are at least 300 call centres across urban India involved in some form of illegal activity.

"All call centres have to be registered with Nasscom, but I doubt if any of the ones that commit frauds are registered. The real problem here is regulation," says S Amar Prasad Reddy, additional director general, National Cyber Safety and Security Standards.

"They don't fall under the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India either, so it is almost impossible to monitor their activities."

Nasscom says it is working with global consumer protection agencies on the issue.

Members of the public have raised their guard recently, as aware users sometimes play along with scammers and post these conversations on YouTube.

Complaint forums list dubious numbers in various geographies.

"As awareness of such cases increases, the cases themselves are likely to increase," says Hemant Nimbalkar, deputy inspector general of police, crime investigation department, Bengaluru. "In most of these cases, the victims are educated people."

At times, however, attempts to raise awareness have backfired. The Thane police found that consumer protection videos by IRS, which explained how scammers typically operate, had ended up informing the scripts and material used by the new fraudsters.

Ranjita Ganesan, Dhruv Munjal & Nikita Puri
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