Boss of Indian call centre ring nabbed

Police officers escorting Sagar Thakkar to a police station in Thane, outside Mumbai, on Saturday. Indian police said he had been living in Dubai since a raid on his call centres last October.
Police officers escorting Sagar Thakkar to a police station in Thane, outside Mumbai, on Saturday. Indian police said he had been living in Dubai since a raid on his call centres last October.PHOTO: REUTERS

Police estimate his employees cheated Americans out of S$140m over the phone by pretending to be tax agents

MUMBAI • The police have detained a 24-year-old man suspected of running a multimillion-dollar fraud from a network of Indian call centres, tricking hundreds of Americans into believing they owed money to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).

Sagar Thakkar, known as Shaggy, was arrested by immigration officials in Mumbai after arriving on a flight from Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, where the police said he had been living since a raid on his call centres last October.

He was charged with extortion, cheating by impersonation and wire fraud, and is expected to remain in custody until Saturday.

Officials accuse Thakkar of leveraging India's vast supply of tech- savvy, English-speaking workers and modern communications technology to earn as much as US$150,000 (S$210,700) a day at the height of the fraud.

Many of his nearly 700 young employees would call US citizens, impersonate IRS agents and demand immediate payment for unpaid taxes. The police estimated that he may have bilked Americans out of US$100 million over the telephone.

The police have been hunting for Thakkar since the call centre raid last year. They believe an informant tipped him off about the raid, said Mr Abhishek Trimukhe, deputy commissioner of police in Thane, just outside Mumbai.

Thakkar's lavish fugitive lifestyle has intrigued Indian crime reporters, who chronicled his purchase of a US$400,000 German sports car from one of India's most famous cricket players as a gift for his girlfriend.

Investigators said that he had recruited former schoolmates for the fraud by driving them in limousines and hosting them at opulent restaurants.

"He appears like a regular guy; he doesn't appear like a criminal if you talk to him," said Mr Param Bir Singh, Thane's police commissioner. "But (he is) very, very tech-savvy and very, very smart."

Thakkar spent the past six months in Dubai. He told the police he lived there using a residential permit, which he claimed was linked to a Dubai-based shell company.

He returned to India of his own volition, perhaps because he had run out of money, Mr Trimukhe said. He returned with no luggage, carrying only two mobile phones and travel documents, the police said.

In conversations with the police, Thakkar described himself as the child of a lower middle-class family from Gujarat who made his first foray into call centre work at 15, carrying out customer phone surveys about buying and selling cars, and then selling those leads to automotive retailers.

He learnt about call centre swindles a few years later from friends, and decided to replicate the model on a large scale, enlisting dozens of school friends, Mr Trimukhe said.

"His entire family was in Ahmedabad and they're lower middle-class; I don't think they really needed it," Mr Trimukhe added. "He wanted fast money. There is no other intention for this. In Ahmedabad, there is a culture of business, they want to earn big money."

The police said they were confident their actions had heavily dented the illegal call centre industry. "Thakkar has shared that there were many call centres running in the country, which after our raid have shut down," Mr Singh said.

The police said they were scouring Thakkar's phones for information, but that he had disposed of the iPhone he used to run the fraud. They said they had found only a handful of contacts and no trace of his past communications on his new phones.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 10, 2017, with the headline 'Boss of Indian call centre ring nabbed'. Print Edition | Subscribe