Scammers prey mostly on Indians and Indian Americans.
By Sujeet Rajan
NEW YORK: Sahil Patel, the notorious Indian American leader of a gang that operated for at least two years through an intricate phone scam that specialized in getting personal information of victims based in the United States, then terrorizing them through phone calls with threat to either have them arrested or deported if they don’t pay money to federal government agencies, was sentenced to over 14 years in prison, on Wednesday, in New York City.
There is no record of how much money was taken from victims, or how many victims there actually are – as many cases go unreported – but Patel was sentenced Wednesday in Manhattan for wire fraud conspiracy and other charges.
Patel committed the crimes from December 2011 until his arrest in December 2013, reported the Associated Press.
The prosecutors say people at call centers in India impersonated U.S. law enforcers and threatened victims with financial penalties and arrest if they didn’t send payments.
They say Patel exploited “desperate” co-conspirators — especially women. In a letter to the sentencing judge, Patel said he made “bad decisions” and begged for mercy. But that didn’t help him get a reprieve. He was justly sentenced to more than 14 years in prison, a term that prosecutors had asked for.
Related Story: H-1B visa holder? A call from 911? Beware!
Phone scams have mushroomed in the US in the last few years. The American Bazaar has done several stories on it, including interviewing several Indian and Indian American victims, who were coerced to send money to the gang through Green Dot and Western Union methods of payment.
In almost all of the cases, the modus operandi was the same: a phone call to the victim from a number that showed as ‘911’ or from the USCIS, or the IRS. The victims were made to believe through multiple people whom they spoke to thereafter that because of an error in their immigration documents, they would be deported with immediate effect, if they failed to send money to rectify the issue.
The victims would then be forced to immediately go to a bank, withdraw money and then give the pin numbers of Green Dot cards, or in some cases to wire the money through Western Union. They would be forced to keep the phone charged as the process went on, threatened with dire results if they tried to speak of the predicament to anybody else, or to disconnect the call.
The gang relied upon extensive research into the victim’s background, to back their plan. Most victims would be given periodically, through different people during the course of the phone call who pretended to be federal and law enforcement officials, personal details, including their passport and H-1B/Green Card details. The gang also were very familiar with local areas the victims lived in, and directed them expertly to various locations as the victim drove to one spot after the other to withdraw money, and then relay it to the gang.
Some victim lost thousands of dollars, some lost tens of thousands, all in the course of one day, to fraud phone calls which lasted for hours. The victims complied, paralyzed by fear that they would lose everything they had built through hard work and perseverance in America, be deported immediately, if they failed to heed directions.
Sahil Patel is not a threat anymore, but the phone scams are flourishing in the US nevertheless, as more and more gangs have discovered it as a way to make easy money through soft targets.
This writer recently interviewed an Indian American woman in Nashville, Tennessee, who became a victim of a phone scam. The victim, who requested anonymity, is a mother of a young child, and an IT professional. She is a Green Card holder. At the time the scam happened, her husband, also a Green Card holder, was in India.
This is what the victim had to say, after she got a call from a 911 number on her cell phone, on a day when she had left her child at a day care, and was working from home.
“The police officer calling from 911 number mentioned that it does not matter that I am a Green card holder. I had not filed for Alien Registration Number when I came to US and that’s why they will have me arrested and will deport me to India right away. This particular caller was very aggressive and was the main reason that scared the hell out of me. The line was transferred to the USCIS number and they said I have not entered my alien registration number. It was a phone hostage situation. They kept pressing on the fact that my phone should be charged all the time and not get disconnected. Failure to comply with them would result in immediate arrest and that i would not even get a chance to defend myself. I was feeling extremely vulnerable since my husband was out of country, in India. I kept requesting that I needed to speak to my husband and kept crying and begging them but they would sternly say that I need to compose myself and do as they tell me if I need to clear my name.
“I was then asked to withdraw $5300; $300 towards a non-refundable fine and $5000 for initiation background check process. This money would be refunded to me in two working days. All I need to do was to submit the tracking number mentioned in Western Union fund transfer to my local USCIS office, I was told.
“After four hours of feeling like a phone hostage and going from one bank to another – these guys kept referring to the bank as “store” – I was feeling miserable and I started texting my husband in India. I had already wired $2000 using Western Union money transfer’s “money in minutes” option. I was heading for my 4th transfer when my husband who was getting very worried, started calling back. I texted him that I could not hang up the phone and to call back, else I would get arrested immediately. At that point, my husband reached out to my neighbor. He also was begging me to hang up and mentioned it was a scam. I refused to listen to my neighbor since I was so convinced with what these scammers said. Finally, my neighbor had to track me down; he snatched the phone from my hand and shouted at the callers for giving me so much grief.
“I came back home and typed “911 USCIS scam” and was shocked to see this scam has been on since 2012 and there has been no action , no investigation done till date. Next day I went to report to the police officers; they made a note of the incident number. There was really no sign of interest from them.
I just want to reach out to as many people as possible and tell them my story so that we don’t have any more scams.”
The terrifying ordeal for the victim ended that day, but she says she has been a nervous wreck since then, ridden with grief and guilt for being taken for a ride by a gang despite her being a modern woman of the world, who is well educated and independent.
Arrests and imprisonment of more culprits like Sahil Patel is much needed, but the state and federal governments too need to step up and start an awareness drive to let residents know of the threat from such gangs. If it’s not the threat of deportation, it’s threats from fraudulent IRS agents, or from utility companies who threaten to shut down businesses.
An ABC News report from earlier this year said federal officials say phony IRS agents have targeted more than 366,000 people with harassing phone calls demanding money and threatening jail in what the agency says is the biggest scam in its history. Since 2013 3,000 people have fallen for it and were conned out of $15.5 million.
Members of Congress like Grace Meng (D-NY) should also be commended for taking the crime of ‘spoofing’ on Capitol Hill.
Meng, Joe Barton (R-TX) and Leonard Lance (R-NJ) last month reintroduced legislation to combat a widespread telephone scam that continues to defraud millions of Americans, particularly the South Asian community.
The Anti-Spoofing Act of 2015 would target “caller ID spoofing,” a growing scheme in which con artists disguise their phone numbers to make it appear that they’re calling from a government agency, bank, police department, credit card company, pharmacy or hospital, said Meng. Once unsuspecting recipients answer the call, scammers ask for and often receive the person’s personal or financial information, then use it to commit fraud.
“The problem of caller ID spoofing has gotten out of control,” said Meng, Barton and Lance, in a joint statement sent to The American Bazaar. “Millions of Americans continue to get ripped off by con artists and scammers who perpetrate this despicable crime, many losing thousands of dollars. It is way past time to reign in this disgraceful practice and this legislation would go a long way towards accomplishing that critical goal. We call on the House and Senate to pass our bill as soon as possible.”
The legislation aims to combat spoofing by strengthening the Truth in Caller ID Act. It would broaden the law to prohibit spoofing by foreigners. Presently, many U.S.-based companies spoof calls to U.S. residents but originate them from outside the United States; broaden the law to include new internet-based Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services that enable callers to make outgoing-only calls from computers and tablets to mobile and landline phones, a practice that has contributed significantly to the spoofing problem; and broaden the law to include text messaging, a spoofing method that fraudsters use with increased regularity.
The House passed the bipartisan Meng/Barton/Lance bill last Congress, but it did not move in the Senate. This legislation is expected to be referred to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce.
(Sujeet Rajan is the Editor-in-Chief of The American Bazaar)