Feds Charge Dozens in Government Impostor Scam

Federal authorities announced in October 2016 that they had shut down a large call center operation that had scammed hundreds of millions of dollars from Americans. According to the Wall Street Journal, an 81-page indictment named 56 people in the U.S. and India and five call centers in India. They were charged in federal court with crimes that include impersonation of a U.S. officer, identity theft, money laundering and wire fraud.

The indictment followed a three-year investigation by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations, the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General and the U.S. Treasury’s Inspector General for Tax Administration. Authorities said that it is the largest law-enforcement action ever conducted against a telephone scam

In the scam, callers in India contacted victims in the U.S. and demanded payment. It involved the familiar tactic of phony government agents making fraudulent demands, including fake deportation warrants, nonexistent arrest warrants and phony unpaid income taxes. Caller ID spoofing made it appear that the calls were coming from a government agency. Victims were told they must pay or face arrest, public humiliation or deportation.

The telephone scam preyed on immigrants and the elderly, and many victims were researched before being contacted by the scammers so they could be targeted more effectively. According to authorities, more than 15,000 people paid more than $300 million to the scammers, with some individual victims paying more than $100,000.

One victim said that she received a call that was identified as being from the 202 area code for Washington, DC. The caller claimed to be with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and said she must immediately pay $6,850 or face arrest the following day. “They knew where I was,” the victim said. “I tried to appeal to their humanity, kept telling them I was a cancer victim,” but their threats finally convinced her to withdraw funds from her bank and transfer the money to the scammers.

Scammers directed victims to load money onto gift cards and other stored-money cards, or to wire money via services such as Western Union. “The call centers relied on a network of U.S.-based associates to cash out and launder the extorted funds as quickly as possible,” said Assistant Attorney General Leslie R. Caldwell. “This was done through a variety of prepaid debit cards, which were often registered by conspirators using personal identifying information of close to 50,000 U.S.-based identity theft victims, or through MoneyGram or Western Union wire transfers conducted with fake names and fraudulent identification.”

Although receiving one of these calls from an aggressive scammer can be terrifying, consumers are urged not to fall for the scam. “If you receive a call like this, do not pay any money,” Caldwell said. “It is not the U.S. government calling you.”