WASHINGTON • Federal prosecutors have brought charges against dozens of people accused of taking part in an international crime ring that relied on Indian phone call centres to bilk thousands of Americans out of more than US$300 million (S$418 million).
While service calls routed to phone banks in India have become a frequent annoyance for US consumers - as well as comic inspiration for late-night TV hosts - the Justice Department revealed a darker side to the operations in an 81- page indictment unsealed in federal court in Houston on Thursday.
The operators of the scheme at five call centres in India would pose as Internal Revenue Service (IRS) tax collectors, US Customs agents, loan officers, police officers or other authority figures in calling "targets", officials said.
The victims were threatened with arrest or deportation if bogus debts were not paid, according to the charges.
Nearly two dozen accomplices arrested in the United States were accused of working as "runners" or managers to collect and then launder the money by using prepaid debit cards, Western Union transfers and informal money exchanges to funnel money back to India.
In one case, an 85-year-old woman in San Diego turned over US$12,300 after she was threatened with arrest over a supposed unpaid tax bill, officials said. In another case, a California resident paid more than US$136,000 through prepaid debit cards after a caller contacted him repeatedly over three weeks about a tax bill.
Some 15,000 victims in all were bilked, the officials said. While many of those targeted were immigrants from India or across South Asia, large numbers were not.
"This case is massive," said Department of Homeland Security inspector-general John Roth, adding that "the investigation touched every part of the United States".
Although most of those charged on Thursday reside in India, Justice Department officials said they would seek to have the authorities there extradite defendants to the US to stand trial on fraud, money laundering and other charges.
Earlier this month, Indian officials arrested 70 people in India who were also accused of taking part in call-centre schemes to defraud Americans by posing as IRS agents.
But US officials said on Thursday that the probe here was unconnected to the one in India and involved a separate ring of call centres.
Taken together, the separate investigations 12,000km apart indicated the wide scope of the problem, and the US authorities warned people to be on guard for scam callers.
The callers used personal information about their targets culled from social media postings as well as other sources of data to make their demands seem genuine.
They were brazen, persistent and "ruthless", and "willing to go to frightening lengths" to extort money, said Mr Bruce Foucart of the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.