Husband and wife crisscross town to pay almost $30,000 to criminals.
AMERICAN BAZAAR INVESTIGATION
By Sujeet Rajan
NEW YORK: There is an organized, sophisticated, technology savvy gang of criminals in the US who are preying on some Indians legally here on H-1B visas: pretending to be police, immigration and FBI officers, extorting money, threatening the terrified victims of immediate deportation over fake violations, if money is not paid. And at least a few, if not many Indians, have fallen into the trap; paid these criminals to keep their American dream alive.
The American Bazaar has now come to know there are at least eight Indians in the US who have received calls, which show up on cell phones as coming from 911 or a 1-800 number from the USCIS (the United States Citizen and Immigration Services), a wing of the federal Homeland Security.
In some of these cases, the gang uses a combination of threats, disclosure of personal information – including passport details – to convince the victims they are legitimate. The gang use psychological pressure, have different ‘officers’ and ‘supervisors’ call victims, force victims to pay money.
In an earlier case reported exclusively by The American Bazaar, an Indian worker in Virginia on an H-1B visa had a harrowing time after he was contacted on his cell phone by an ‘immigration officer’ – the number came through on his phone as 911. The victim fell for it, as most Indians trust the law enforcement in the US as sacrosanct.
That Indian worker, who has been working on an H-1B visa for a year in the US, was threatened of deportation, along with his family. He was told that if he did not pay $2,200, he would be deported to India, to reapply for a visa. That worker ended up paying $2,000 through GreenDot cards he was forced to purchase by his caller.
There are many other Indians who have been contacted by these criminals, the Bazaar has since learnt. It seems these criminals are getting specific immigration related information on victims they target. The gang know exactly who to go after. More importantly, what kind and how much of pressure to exert. This profiling means one thing for sure: identity theft apart, these criminals are getting precise information on whom to profile by individual(s) privy to such information.
Indians in the US, on H-1B visas – and it seems those here only for a relatively short period of time – are being systematically targeted by these criminals.
Some of the victims have contacted the police and the FBI. According to the victims, they have been told investigation is on, but clearly, the gang is still operating with impunity.
In an exclusive interview to The American Bazaar, a young woman living in San Diego, California, who spoke under the condition of anonymity, and for the purpose of this story will be called A, narrated a story that would not be out of place in the fictional world of films.
It’s a real life terror story, however, which has devastated her and her husband – who shall for this story be called B.
The couple from India have been left financially, emotionally, psychologically, and on that fateful day, September 11th, even physically, drained. A was forced to plead with her callers past 6 p.m. to let her go home as she was exhausted, said she was about to faint, had no strength left to drive back. From 8 in the morning, she had been forced by a vicious bunch of criminals to relentlessly crisscross San Diego, go to various locations, pay money. She was not given time to eat or drink, to rest for a few minutes.
The frenetic pace at which A was forced to drive all around town, from bank to bank, from one store to the other, to placate her tormentors, pay them money, could perhaps be understood by those who’ve seen the German film, Run Lola Run, about a woman who needs to obtain 100,000 Marks in 20 minutes to save her boyfriend’s life.
Even as A was terrorized, her husband, B, too was being made to crisscross the town of San Diego to make payments at different locations as demanded by his tormentors. B was told non-payment would mean he would be deported, along with his wife. The same modus operandi was used on both of them by their tormentors.
The frightening, nerve-wracking experience that A and B had, has disillusioned them, made them a bitter couple. It’s created rancor, discord. The husband blames the wife for sharing information about him. The wife says the callers knew about him already; they knew exactly what they had to do, had a plan. The husband has lost hope of recovering any money they have been swindled of. He’s become morose, depressed, says his wife. The exuberant life they started out in the US has now become a living nightmare.
In a single day, A, and her husband, B, paid almost $30,000 to this gang of criminals, who terrorized them over the phone.
This is their story of that fateful day of September 11th, which for them will forever have a different connotation, as narrated by A to this reporter:
At 8: 20 a.m., A is in her office, when she gets a call on her cell phone: it says ‘Emergency Number.’ When she answers, the persons identifies himself as ‘Steve,’ asks where she is. I will come within five minutes, arrest you, put you behind bars, he tells her abruptly, when she informs she is in office.
What did I do? she asked, as fear crept in, paralyzed her. I haven’t done anything wrong; I don’t have a bad record.
You’ve not been responding to calls from the USCIS, ignored it, the caller tells her sternly. You are an illegal in our country, have violated our immigration laws.
“I was shivering by now, could barely hold onto my phone; I lost my ability to think,” says A.
The caller orders her to wait, not to disconnect the call. He said he was going to connect her to the USCIS, to an officer handling her case. Another man came on the line, identified himself as ‘Kevin Marsh.’ I’m your caretaker at the USCIS, he told her.
“He had a calm, considerate voice, I felt soothed talking to him, felt that maybe he could save me from being arrested by Steve,” says A.
The caller asked her if she had an A number, did she come here on a student visa.
“I knew I didn’t have an A number, as I’m on H-1B visa; I also vaguely remembered I was not supposed to have an A number, but he knew about my past record, that I had been on a student visa. He told me I had a problem with my immigration records, that since I didn’t have an A number, I was in trouble,” says A.
She had two options, the caller said: get deported, or pay a penalty to update records, get an A number. The penalty: pay $2,800 to the USCIS immediately, the same day. You have to withdraw cash from Citibank – they knew I have an account there, she says – and get GreenDot cards, five of them worth $500 each and another card for $300.
“I had never heard of it, so I thought this must be a legal card,” says A of GreenDot cards, which are pre-paid debit cards.
“You cannot use your phone to call anybody, text anybody, as you are on protocol, he told me,” says A.
“He kept telling me that, that I am on ‘protocol,’ that to use my phone to call anybody or text would break that protocol, our deal for me to pay money to get out of this situation would be over,” says A. “I was told not to disconnect the phone at any point, to keep it on hold when I had to.”
She was given the address of a RiteAid pharmacy in San Diego from where she had to purchase the GreenDot cards. She left the office without telling any of her colleagues, drove to a Citibank branch location, withdrew money, went to the address given to her, purchased the $2,800 worth of cards, gave her caller the pin numbers on the card.
“I told them I have to call my office, but they said that I had to do a conference call in that case. When I tried to do that, I couldn’t do it; they obviously were using some kind of technology to block my phone. When I told them I had to inform office immediately, I was told to make a call by putting them on hold. I told the office I was very sick, had to rush home. My boss was very sympathetic,” says A.
A was made to drive back to her home by her caller. Her husband had left for work. He works in a different office than hers. There was nobody else at home.
“Once I reached home, I was told to log onto the computer, check out the USCIS website, look up the A number. Then I was told to check my documents to see if I had an A number on my 1-94 document. They had my passport information. When I said I don’t have an A number, the caller threatened me. By that time, my husband was calling me continuously, but I was afraid to take his calls. Ignored it. The caller told me that he was going to transfer me back to the police officer who had first called me. When he came on line, he told me there was a charge of $3,960 for transferring the A number to my records,” says A. “They also took information about my husband, saying they had to get in touch with him to inform him about my predicament.”
The caller told A, who was completely out of her wits by now, she had to go to a different Citibank location, withdraw $4,000. She was given several addresses of 7-Eleven stores and RiteAid pharmacies, to purchase the Green Dot cards. Told to hurry. In a burst of driving, she did what they told her to do.
“I thought this was over,” says A.
After she gave the pin numbers for the $3960, the ‘police officer’ said her case looks complicated. He would have to transfer her case to an FBI officer monitoring her. The new person who came on line identified himself as ‘Larry Stone.’
“This Larry Stone, who said he was an FBI agent, was the most arrogant and rude person I have ever spoken to in my life. He kept shouting, threatening me. I almost got a heart attack,” says A.
As this new caller was talking to A, her husband B got a similar call on his cellphone. The person on line said he was from the immigration department, threatened him the same way A was threatened. Told him he would be deported.
The same routine that A went through was played on B. He was forced to withdraw money, ordered to drive home to check on his computer for an A number. He came home after A left home. He was told to go to Citibank to withdraw money – both he and his wife have different accounts and that probably didn’t alert the bank to suspicious activity. To purchase GreenDot cards from different locations. They both were made to crisscross town through different directions: withdraw money, purchase cards.
“This FBI agent told me there was no proof I was a good person. I told him I have no criminal background, but he shouted at me, told me, ‘if there is something I don’t like, it’s being interrupted.’ ‘I will put 100 charges against you, put you behind bars for 100 years, he shouted,’” said A.
“He told me that either I should get arrested or pay up $8,500, an amount that would be refunded if my case was updated and cleared by the immigration authorities later. I was shivering, crying with fear. I told him I will pay the money,” said A.
“When I reached Citibank to withdraw money, this time the teller asked me what was wrong several times, asked me if everything was Ok, why did I want to withdraw so much money. The teller could see the fear on my face probably. But I said there was a family emergency in India, I needed money quickly,” says A. “Even the people at the counters of the 7-Eleven stores I went to asked me if everything is Ok, but I tried to seem normal, told them yes, everything is alright.”
She was made to go to seven different locations this time, and ended up buying the $8,500 worth of GreenDot cards and giving the numbers over the phone to the so called FBI agent, whom she says by his accent seemed as if he was African American.
In all, she had paid $15,260 by then.
The gang had one more demand.
“It was 6:30 p.m. by now. I was exhausted, could barely stand up, or drive” says A. “Another person now came on the line, said he is a supervisor. Said his name is ‘Shaun Rick.’ He was not rude, seemed like a good person. He consoled me, saying my case is looking good. He told me that the $3,960 and the $8,500 would be refunded to me, once my case was processed. That is also something what I kept telling myself, that it is Ok, all this money will be returned. I was only praying that my case should be Ok. I don’t want to be deported,” says A.
“This Shaun Rick told me that at the USCIS they get 480 cases like this every day, they have to handle illegals and criminals. You are now Ok, he told me, you don’t have any burden. He also gave me a dummy A number, told me again that everything was going to be fine, my case was good now,” says A.
“Then he asked me to do one last thing before we could all go home,” says A. “Take all the Green Dot cards in the car, tear them up, go to different garbage bins in the city and dump them, he said. I pleaded with him that I was in danger of fainting anytime, the police would in that case have to drive me home, I had no energy left,” says A.
“He then told me, Ok, go home, but immediately tear up all the cards and dispose of them,” she says.
She somehow reached home without accident. Her husband too came home after some time. She narrated her story to him. He narrated his to her. He had given away $14,700 to the gang.
In all, they both lost $29,960 in a single day.
“We are still under shock,” says A. “I had to take leave from office for two days. My husband has lost hope of ever getting the money back, but I have made complaints to the police, FBI and IC3 (Internet Crime Complaint Center),” says A.
“It did strike me as a fraud case when I was talking to them, but it was also an extremely emotional situation for me,” says A. “The way they did it, one man was rude, then another man would be nice, then followed by a horribly rude person, then somebody whom I felt I could trust to get me out of this situation, they kept me nervous and made me feel safe at the same time,” says A.
“At one point, the FBI agent who was the most rude, threatened me saying he knew that I was married in India, that I had a marriage certificate from there. He said it was not recognized here, that I was living illegally with my husband, he would put me behind bars,” says A.
“When I tried to tell him that my husband and I were married legally, in a temple, he told me not to interrupt him, that the US does not validate marriage certificates from India,” says A.
“My husband and I are both upset, broken right now,” says A. “My husband blames me for telling them some things about him, but he understands me too, since he too underwent what I went through,” says A. “I don’t know if we will ever get over this.”
“I have told my employers about it, my attorneys, they are sympathetic. More than anything else, I’m worried that my parents in India will come to know of this. I want to shield them from this news. They won’t be able to take it,” says A.
(Sujeet Rajan is the Editor-in-Chief of The American Bazaar).
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