India’s Call-Center Talents Put to a Criminal Use: Swindling Americans
THANE, India — Betsy Broder, who tracks international fraud at the Federal Trade Commission, was in her office in Washington last summer when she got a call from two Indian teenagers.
印度塔那——去年夏天，美国联邦贸易委员会（Federal Trade Commission，简称FTC）负责追踪国际欺诈案的贝齐·布罗德(Betsy Broder)，在其位于华盛顿的办公室里接到了两名印度青年的电话。
Calling from a high-rise building in a suburb of Mumbai, they told her, in tones that were alternately earnest and melodramatic, that they wanted to share the details of a sprawling criminal operation targeting Americans. Broder, who was no stranger to whistleblowers, pressed the young men for details.
“He said his name was Adam,” she said, referring to one of the pair. “I said, ‘Your name is not Adam. What does your grandmother call you?’ He said, ‘Babu.'”
Babu was Jayesh Dubey, a skinny 19-year-old with hair gelled into vertical bristles, a little like a chimney brush. He told her that he was working in a seven-story building and that everyone there was engaged in the same activity: impersonating IRS officials and threatening Americans, demanding immediate payment to cover back taxes.
If they reached a person who was sufficiently terrified or gullible — this was known in the business as a “sale” — they would instruct that person to buy thousands of dollars’ worth of iTunes cards to avoid prosecution, they said; the most rattled among them complied. The victim would then send the codes from the iTunes cards to the swindlers, giving them access to the money on the card.
As it happened, the U.S. government had been tracking this India-based scheme since 2013, a period during which Americans, many of them recent immigrants, have lost $100 million to it.
Though India had no reputation as a large-scale exporter of fraud in the past, it is now seen as a major center for cyberfraud, said Suhel Daud, an FBI agent who serves as assistant legal attaché at the embassy in New Delhi. Several trends have converged to make this happen, he said: a demographic bulge of computer-savvy, young, English-speaking job seekers; a vast call-center culture; super-efficient technology; and what can only be described as ingenuity.
“They have figured all of this out,” Daud said. “Put all of these together, with the Indian demographics in the U.S., and it’s a natural segue. Whatever money you’re making, you can easily make 10 times as much.”
‘I Want Money. That’s Why.’
Pawan Poojary and Jayesh Dubey, best friends and college dropouts, were impressed with the Phoenix 007 call center in Thane, a suburb northeast of Mumbai. The interviewer carried an iPhone; there were racing sport bikes parked outside, and, as Poojary put it, “girls roaming here and there.” The monthly salary was average for call centers, 16,000 rupees (about $230), they said, but the bonuses were double or triple that, based on sales.
帕万·普贾里(Pawan Poojary)和贾耶什·杜贝是最好的朋友，都从大学辍了学，位于孟买东北部郊区塔那的凤凰007(Phoenix 007)呼叫中心让他们印象深刻。面试官拿着一部iPhone，外边停着竞速自行车，用普贾里的话说还有“一些女孩四处闲晃”。他们说，呼叫中心员工的月薪为1.6万卢比（约合230美元），属中等水平，但奖金是这个数字的两倍或三倍，依业务额而定。
The two friends had been playing a video game for up to eight hours a day, pausing occasionally to eat. They wanted in.
“At that time, in my mind is that I want money,” Poojary, 18, said. “That’s it. I want money. That’s why.”
They said they showed up for training in a room of young Indians like themselves, the first in their family to be educated in English. They were a slice of aspirational India: Poojary’s father, who owned two welding shops, was adamant that his son would rise to a higher place in society, an office job. Poojary was afraid to tell him he had dropped out of college.
The trainer assigned them names, Paul Edward and Adam Williams, and handed out a six-page script that started out, “My name is Shawn Anderson, with the department of legal affairs with the United States Treasury Department,” the teenagers said.
培训师给他们分派了名字，保罗·爱德华(Paul Edward)和亚当·威廉姆斯(Adam Williams)，还发了一份6页长的发起谈话的脚本，“我叫肖恩·安德森(Shawn Anderson)，任职于美国财政部法律事务局，”两名青年说道。
“We read the script, and I asked, ‘Is this a scam?'” Poojary said. “He said, ‘Yes.'”
“At that time I am money-minded. I thought, ‘OK, I can do this,'” he said.
Preying on Fear
Inaben Desai, of Sugar Land, Texas, came home from grocery shopping, and her mother handed her the phone, eyes wide with alarm. Someone was on the line from the government, her mother said. They had called three or four times while she was out.
Desai, 56, worked as a cashier at Wal-Mart. When she picked up the phone, a gruff-voiced man told her that she had failed to pay fees when she got her U.S. citizenship, in 1995, and that unless she did so she would be deported back to India, she said. When Desai said she needed to call her husband, a woman got on the phone, speaking sympathetically, in her native Gujarati.
“She said, ‘If you involve your husband, there’s going to be more problems,'” Desai said. “'Your husband is going to get in trouble, too. Don’t involve your husband.'”
Desai had begun to cry. Still on the line with the woman, she took all the cash she had on hand and drove to a nearby grocery store, where she bought $1,386 in prepaid debit cards. Then the woman instructed her to go to her bank, transfer close to $9,000 to the account of someone named Jennifer, in California, and then fax confirmation and confidential details about her account.
“The bank lady tried to stop me, and she said, ‘This is your personal information,'” Desai said. “But I’m scared, and I faxed it to them because I’m scared of what would happen to my family.” The swindlers, who now had access to her bank balance, called back to demand another sum close to $9,000. Desai had to drive to another bank branch to make the transaction. The total amount she transferred, $17,786, was nearly all her savings.
Poojary was not the person who called Desai, whose case dates to 2014. But a similar conversation prompted him to contact the U.S. government. He recalled the woman’s name as Regella, and said that when she begged him to give her a little time, Poojary felt so sorry for her that he went to his supervisor, who told him to push harder.
“I just feel guilty at that time,” he said. “We are also Indians. We also don’t have money. They also don’t have money.”
The so-called Mira Road scam, named for the building’s neighborhood, had moved into a single floor of the seven-story high-rise in early 2016. By summer it filled the whole building.
“It got big,” said Daud, the FBI agent. “And when it gets big, you leave breadcrumbs.”
Nitin Thakare, a senior police inspector at the crime branch in Thane, will not say much about the person who contacted him in September with a tip about Mira Road.
But he will describe the raid, in loving, cinematic detail: How at 10 p.m., after the last of the call center staff had arrived for the night shift, 200 police officers streamed up the main staircase, blocking every exit and detaining all 700 people who worked inside.
“These are the youth of our nation,” Thakare said. “They were misguided. For the first few days it seems glamorous. Someone is teaching them an accent, people are smoking, there are women. There’s freedom and night life. The youth love that.”
The police said that others, like the landlord who had rented the building to the swindlers, wondered why the authorities cared in the first place. “He said, ‘What happened?'” said Parag Manere, a deputy commissioner of police. “'We are not cheating people in India! We are cheating people in the U.S.! And the U.S. cheats the whole world!'”
The officers interviewed and released 630 of the call-center workers, arresting the 70 highest-ranking employees.
What they had stumbled on, it became clear, was a branch of a much larger network, the police said. Five days later, the police organized a second raid, of facilities in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, which they believed to be a nerve center. The U.S. Justice Department had come to the same conclusion: It has since released an indictment tracing 1.8 million calls targeting U.S. residents to five call centers in Ahmedabad that used various schemes to defraud more than 15,000 people out of hundreds of millions of dollars.
By the time the police arrived at the Ahmedabad location, though, the syndicate was gone. “The place where we raided, it was a thousand-seat call center,” Manere said. “When we got there it was empty. Empty. Nothing. Not a piece of paper. Empty halls. Empty halls.”