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Tuesday, October 26, 2021

When trouble calls: Behind Delhi’s call centre scam duping US citizens

With thousands of ‘call centres’ cropping up in Delhi to dupe US citizens, police are having to grapple with tech savvy fraudsters and sophisticated modus operandi

Written by Mahender Singh Manral | New Delhi |
Updated: September 20, 2021 1:55:38 pm
Data on who to dupe is often sourced or purchased through the ‘dark web’, officers said. (Illustration: Suvajit Dey)

Sitting in a posh South Delhi cafe, the 38-year-old recalled a time when more than 700 people used to work for him. What he ran was a call centre — but not one dedicated to resolving customer complaints or selling a property or product. Instead, the North Delhi establishment had a singular purpose: Duping foreigners.

Those days are behind him, though. The man, who did not wish to be identified, was arrested around 2017-18 and subsequently released on bail. Speaking to The Indian Express, he revealed the staggering scope and intricate modus operandi of such ‘call centres’, which have become a nuisance for the Delhi Police. Senior officers The Indian Express spoke to testified to this trend and said the scale of each such scam runs into several crores.

According to estimates, over the past year, thousands of foreigners, mostly from the United States, have lost money to the tune of Rs 300 crore after falling prey to highly organised cons running from such call centres in Delhi. Often, the conmen and women pose as US tax officials and talk their victims into paying up huge amounts as fines for fictitious cases of tax evasions. They are trained to speak in an American accent, and paid handsomely by the masterminds — earning as much as Rs 55,000 to Rs 70,000 per month along with incentives.

Data on who to dupe is often sourced or purchased through the ‘dark web’, officers said.

In other cases, the callers pose as tech support from establishments such as Microsoft or Amazon and manage to talk people into parting with sensitive information such as bank or credit card details. In some instances, the masterminds have associates helping them in the US, but tracking them down remains a huge task, officers said.

There have been reports of similar rackets being run across the country, but the scale of what’s unfolding in the national capital is unprecedented, said officers. Though close to 350 alleged racketeers have been arrested so far and around 500 questioned, many such ‘call centres’ remain operational.

According to senior officers, West Delhi in particular provides a fertile ground for such illegal tele-fraud as there are several property owners who, without proper background checks, provide infrastructure and even equipment to run a scam of this nature. Some even offer ‘ready to shift’ office spaces where they charge Rs 1 lakh per computer seat. Officers estimate more than 1,000 such call centres are operational across Delhi, in areas such as Pitampura, Rohini, Shalimar Bagh, Moti Nagar, Kirti Nagar, Rajouri Garden, Janakpuri and Tilak Nagar.

Officers said connivance of policemen with owners of call centres has also been found in several instances.

In the past nine months, 35 such call centres have been busted in Delhi. This year on, however, district police teams are working dedicatedly to address the issue. This comes after the Delhi Police headquarters issued an ultimatum that departmental action would be taken against local staff if any such call centre is found in their area. As a result, whenever night patrol staff find several youths near a building that looks like an office space, they take action.

The MO

The 38-year-old said he used to work with a BPO in Gurgaon, and though everything was done by the book there, his three years on the job helped him learn about the system and how it can be gamed. “In the US, every citizen has a social security number (SSN). It is a nine-digit number that the government issues to all US citizens and eligible US residents and uses it to keep track of their lifetime earnings and the number of years worked. Many scams revolve around their SSN and in making them believe they are in trouble. People in the US have a lot of respect for the law — unlike in India, they get scared if they get a call from a law enforcement agency. And that’s how we in India are taking advantage of this and cheating them of thousands of dollars every day,” he said.

DCP (Dwarka) Santosh Kumar Meena said the fraudsters usually choose a secluded place to open a call centre as they have to operate at night.

The 38-year-old said after leaving his Gurgaon job, he opened a call centre and hired 10 persons: “Only some laptops, the internet, and a table-chair are required. Our main callers are 10-15 persons, while others are learners and they switch jobs after some time. We pay more to experienced employees as they also train these youngsters. Nowadays, call centre owners also keep changing offices to avoid arrest.”

Police said the calls are not made using a software to mask the caller’s number. “Initially, a recorded message tells the person that law enforcement agencies have found a discrepancy while scanning their tax forms or found that their bank accounts were used in a crime, especially by drug cartels in Mexico or Colombia. They are then asked to press a number to talk to an officer, and as soon as they do, the fraudster sitting in a call centre in Delhi receives a call. He starts interacting with them to extract more details and, sometimes, even sends a fake warrant. The person is informed they have been fined thousands of dollars which, if not paid, would lead to legal repercussions. They are given a choice: face arrest or accept an ‘alternative dispute resolution’ to avoid facing any legal hurdle,” said a senior officer.

The 38-year-old elaborated: “If the person agrees to pay the ‘fine’, he or she is told to do it only through gift cards or crypto currency. The person, for instance, is made to buy iTunes gift cards worth thousands of dollars and share the details with the caller. The fraudster then shares the details of the gift card with an associate in the US, who in turn shares it with a broker. Eventually, the fraudster in Delhi gets 70-80% of the value of the gift card through hawala channels, while their associates in the US keep the rest as their cut. If someone is not able to pay the fine in full, they are told to pay in instalments.”

In some cases, fraudsters send several links to people they have identified which, if clicked, adversely affect their computer. DCP Meena said they recently arrested 12 people. “During questioning, they revealed that they send fake pop-ups such as ‘ransomware detected’, ‘security warning’, etc to US residents on their computers through pop-up vendors. The fake pop-ups provide a phone number for technical support, which links to the call centre in Delhi. The fraudsters then extort money in the guise of providing technical help,” he said.

The Indian Express scanned statements of over 30 employees of such call centres arrested by the Delhi Police and found a pattern: All of them had uploaded their CVs on job portals, from where those running the call centres reached out to them.

“They told police they were asked to come for an interview to a coffee shop or a fast-food joint where a person would ask about their qualifications and tell them to get trained at their call centre for English speaking,” said an officer.

The 38-year-old said there was a time when police were only arresting owners of such call centres, but nowadays, they have started picking up the employees too. “As a result, before joining, the men and women ask the owner to give an assurance that they would be protected from arrest, and also ask about their contacts in the police department. But since there isn’t a particular complainant in many of these cases and police have made suo motu arrests, many of those arrested get bail within a month. After coming out, some join another such establishment in Delhi while others leave for another city,” he said.

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