A drunken conversation tipped off Thane Crime Branch detectives to the unprecedented scam targeting unsuspecting Americans from call centres in Thane.
Reportage and photographs: Prasanna D Zore/Rediff.com
The first four days of October had recorded incessant rains, but the weather was pleasant the next day.
It was about 8.45 in the evening and about 700 call centre employees, packed inside a nine-storey, newly done building in Mira Road, a suburb in Thane district, were furiously at work, calling and receiving calls from citizens, mostly seniors, in the United States of America.
While the first floor accommodated the parking lot, the top floor was being readied for more agents and the hiring process was underway. Packed to about 100 a floor, these employees, would call non-suspecting US residents, telling them they had violated US tax laws and ask them to cough up anywhere between $500 (about Rs 32,000) to $60,000 (about Rs 38 lakhs) to settle their tax dues and avoid penalties, including imprisonment.
These employees, mostly college-going teenagers, freshly-minted graduates, Class 12 dropouts, a select few in the know, most oblivious, were part of a racket that has now run into -- according to sources investigating the fraud -- anything between $36 million and $70 million (Rs 240 crore to Rs 500 crore).
At around 8.30 pm the same evening, Senior Police Inspector Nitin Thakare of the Thane Crime Branch's Unit 1 was readying 200 policemen for an operation. Most of these policemen were not told about the mission that Thakare, along with his superior, Assistant Commissioner of Police Mukund Hatote, had planned that night.
As the convoy of more than 20 police cars made its way through the bustling Eastern Express Highway towards Mira Road after sunset, the 700 employees were using a six-page written script to hoodwink US citizens posing as officials from the Internal Revenue Services, the US' tax collection agency.
The team leaders were egging their teams on to get more aggressive with their customers; the 'closers' -- experienced agents who closed the calls after trapping people to pay up -- were helping out agents who called on them once they softened the person at the other end; the floor managers were busy texting a 16-digit code, from prepaid cards, extracted from the 'tax evaders' to their seniors in Ahmedabad, who then sent this 16-digit code to their counterparts in the US.
After keeping about 30 per cent of the conned money, the agent in the US would then transfer the funds illegally via hawala routes to the masterminds in India.
This con had been in play for more than four years now through various such dubious call centres spread across Thane, Navi Mumbai, Ahmedabad and other places across the country.
But the scam was about to be busted by the Thane Crime Branch.
When the police convoy was a few hundred metres away from the Delta IT Park, the nine-storeyed glass facade building from where the scam was being run, Thakare and his fellow officers divided the 200 policemen into 10 groups as they unleashed the raid on the building around 9.30 pm.
As the raid began, the policemen first disconnected the Internet lines leased for the con using Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP); CCTV cameras too were disconnected, lest employees get a whiff of what was going on.
The 700 employees had no clue about what had befallen on them.
"I was on the eighth floor when the policemen in mufti entered the floor at 10.15 pm," says Aniket (name changed on request as it is an ongoing police investigation), an 18-year-old employee who worked on inbound calls from US citizens.
"The police called on the floor managers and team leaders to assemble at a vacant space inside the hall," said another employee from the fifth floor without revealing his name.
"Those who did not cooperate with the police were beaten up and arrested," the fifth-floor employee said.
The same act was being played out on the eighth floor. "They started taking out hard disks, sealing the computers, and collecting whatever documents -- payment vouchers, records of closed calls, money collected on the floor since 6 pm (employees worked here from 6 pm to 4 am and 7 pm to 5 am shifts apart from those who worked day shifts to keep an account of the money collected by all the agents, pending calls, and those who had promised to pay up later), resumes and photographs of employees," Aniket said.
By the time, the raid ended the following night at 10 pm across three call centres -- Delta IT Park, Universal Outsourcing and Oswal House, all in Mira Road -- the detectives from the Thane Crime Branch had impounded 900 hard disks, sophisticated servers, software and hardware that was used to mask the calls emanating from India as those from a US telephone numbers.
The detectives arrested 70 employees, with over 772 employees asked to be present at the police station for questioning whenever required.
Interestingly, an employee said, the people who ran the scam at this call centre had an inkling about an impending police raid on September 30.
"At around 11 that night, four hours after my shift started, we were asked to vacate the premises immediately on September 30. The entire building was evacuated by 1 am with most employees looking perplexed at the turn of events, unaware of what was in their fate only a couple of days later," he said.
"We were all asked to go home instead of hanging around the premises and asked to come back on Monday, October 3," he added.
As nothing happened on Monday and Tuesday the people who were expecting a police raid took it easy.
And then at 9.30 pm on October 5, lightning struck.
As fate would have it, an employee at this call centre, who was in the thick of the con, in a drunken stupor, confided to a friend how thousands of US citizens were being scammed.
The employee, who revealed details of the scam to his friend, was upset with his employers that he was not being paid adequately.
This drunken conversation would eventually end up with Inspector Thakare.
It so happened that the friend in whom this call centre employee confided was also Inspector Thakare's friend. Thus, the lid was blown off over the four-year-old, Rs 500 crore-and-counting scam.
"When my friend told me about this employee's story we decided to act," Thakare told this correspondent at his office two days after the scam was busted.
"We got this employee to record calls with US citizens to verify his claims," added a source from the Thane Crime Branch on the condition that his name would not be mentioned in this report as he is not authorised to speak with the media.
Once the detectives verified and cross-verified what the employee had revealed after listening to the audio tapes, they knew they had to raid these call centres to end this fraud. But there was a hitch.
The call centres that were to be raided were out of bounds for the Thane Crime Branch officers because these establishments fell under the jurisdiction of the Thane Rural Police.
Without wasting time the issue was discussed with Thane Police Commissioner Parambir Singh and subsequently with Maharashtra Director General of Police Satish Mathur.
Once the required permission was obtained, the policemen swooped on the three call centres and dug out the unprecedented fraud.
"The masterminds are experts in technology, They have used software and hardware including proxy servers to mask their real identities," Thakare said.
"10 to 12 accused are still absconding even as we arrested 70 employees who were in the know of the scam taking place at these centres," Thakare added.
After the scam was busted, Assistant Commissioner of Police Mukund Hatote, Thane Crime Branch (Detection), has been receiving emails from US citizens from Pittsburgh, California, New Jersey providing him with details of how they were duped.
"One lady from California was threatened by these scamsters and they made her pay $13,500," Hatote said.
A 25 to 30-year-old resident of Ahmedabad's Bopal locality, Sagar 'Saggy' Thakkar has emerged as the Indian kingpin of this multi-million dollar scam.
Sagar Thakkar would rarely visit the Mira Road call centre where Aniket and other employees worked for salaries between Rs 5,000 to Rs 60,000 a month excluding the incentives.
Whenever he did, the entire building would be agog with his presence, say two other employees who worked at the Delta IT Park, and who had been called for questioning by the police. Both had worked for more than a month at the call centre.
"I saw him only twice in the 45 days I worked there before the police raid," said an employee who worked on the eighth floor, where, mostly, according to him, those who had been freshly trained were deployed to answer inbound calls.
"He was flashy. He would mostly be accompanied by bodyguards. He wore torn (ripped) jeans, bright jackets, sunglasses, and would come in flashy cars," said another employee.
"He could be around 25 to 30. Most team leaders would egg their agents on citing his lifestyle," says the fifth floor employee who saw him on a couple of occasions driving a Mercedes and Audi cars.
Three of the four employees said they saw Thakkar on the day their salaries were distributed in cash.
"The floor managers would come with a heavy sack and pay the salaries, sorted into neat bundles," said the fifth floor employee.
The recruitment process for getting a job at this call centre was simple.
The first ladder included testing language skills. "Once the first level was cleared, the interviewee would be sent to another person who would try and find out if the prospective employee would raise an alarm if they discovered what their actual job was, which was difficult to find out, as there were layers upon layers that prevented the freshers from knowing that it was a scam and how it worked.
Hired employees were then trained for a period of seven to 15 days depending on their grasping power and sent on the floor to either call prospective victims or speak to them when they called back.
"I was given the job offer via a telephone call. They had advertised a number in a train and when I called I got selected because I spoke fluent English," says a lady employee who had come to the Crime Branch for questioning.
"The job was not difficult as all agents were given a written script along with rebuttals. Each one of us was told to be aggressive while speaking to the American customers. We were trained to speak with authority," she said.
"If the person at the other end would not be cowed down by our aggression we were asked to hang up on them without much ado."
Like any call centre, the one at the Delta IT Park would organise walk-in interviews, referrals and use social media to recruit employees.
Once selected, they would be grouped in teams of 15 people each and sent to different floors based on their training, grasping power, confidence and skill sets.
They were given the phone codes of all the 50 US states to help them find out from which state the call had come or to which state an automated dialer had made the phone call.
"We made almost 1,000 calls a day and only four or five would fall for the con and make immediate payments via preloaded cards," said an employee.
"The team leader would egg us on to keep at it aggressively; another came into play when the call had to be closed; yet another when the client at the other end was ready to pay and part with a 16-digit code for transfer of money into a US account," an employee said.
"It was a looting business for them. For them it was making money using underhand means; it was their business," another employee said, "but for us it was a job that helped us run our houses."
"You will always find more people than you need to do a job, without asking too many questions, even if you pay a salary as paltry as Rs 5,000 or Rs 15,000," an 18-year-old awaiting questioning at the Crime Branch said.
"I had no clue what I was getting into when I entered the building 15 days ago."