The scam is familiar: Someone pretending to be an IRS agent calls and says you owe back taxes and must pay up now or risk arrest.
Federal authorities announced Thursday that a three-year investigation has identified dozens of people involved in a fraudulent scheme run out of India-based call centers that scammed at least 15,000 people out of more than $300 million.
The Justice Department has indicted 56 people and five Indian companies on charges including wire fraud and money laundering in connection with the international phone scam. Authorities announced that 20 people had been arrested and that they would be seeking extradition for those accused in the scheme who remain in India.
The scammers, based in Ahmedabad, India, targeted immigrants and the elderly for the calls and pretended to be IRS agents, Assistant Attorney General Leslie R. Caldwell said Thursday. Once a victim was on the phone, the call center operators “threatened potential victims with arrest, imprisonment, fines or deportation if they did not pay taxes or penalties to the government,” according to the indictment.
The callers culled personally identifiable information about their victims from sources, including social media, and used systems that spoof the phone numbers from which they were calling to make their requests appear legitimate, prosecutors said.
Those who agreed to pay were told to withdraw cash, then purchase prepaid debit cards from various retail stores and provide the unique serial numbers for the cards to the fake agents. The scammers often used stolen personal information from other victims to register the debit cards and then move the money via wire transfers, prosecutors said.
Indian law enforcement arrested 70 people earlier this month in a similar but separate scam operation.
Prosecutors will try to seek monetary judgments against those charged, but the 15,000 victims in this case are unlikely to be able to recover the stolen money, prosecutors said.
“The sad thing about these scams is often once the money is paid, it’s gone,” Ms. Caldwell said.
Although these arrests will put a dent in call center scam operations, Ms. Caldwell said, it will not entirely shut down such operations.
“A lot of the folks we are arresting today can be replaced by other people,” she said.
Investigators encouraged people to remain cautious about such scams.
“Do not let your guard down. These people are persistent,” said Russell George, inspector general of the U.S. Treasury inspector general for tax administration. “I do expect these people are resilient and will not give up.”
One victim in the scheme was called multiple times over a 20-day period as the callers demanded payments for what they said were tax violations. He ended up paying the scammers $136,000.
Anyone who receives such a call should hang up and report the call to authorities, Mr. George said.