T wo recent incidents of Assam and Meghalaya police forces busting fake call centres bear ominous portents for the fledgling BPO sector in Northeast region. On Monday last, sleuths of the special cell of East Khasi Hills Police launched simultaneous raids at locations in Shillong, hauling up fraudsters operating two call centres at Cleve Colony area. It transpired that these fraudsters were duping overseas clients in the US by impersoting Interl Revenue Service (IRS) or immigration officials. The modus operandi involved calling up gullible US citizens, accusing them of tax evasion or unpaid dues, and threatening them with jail if they refuse to pay up by purchasing gift cards from Walmart or Target Store. The purchasers would then hand over their 16-digit number to the caller, who in turn would send the numbers to a vendor in US to get the amount remitted to India through hawala channels. Not only were the callers trained to speak in standard American accent, they even had scripts with IRS details to masquerade convincingly as US federal or tax officials, along with sets of answers to any possible query that could be posed by their targets in US. The full scale of the fraud perpetrated will emerge in coming days as the sleuths get to work on seized servers, computers hard disks and other incrimiting objects and documents. But the police are already suspecting fraudulent activities by some other call centres. Sleuths have reportedly zeroed in on a call centre in Shillong that used to trap US citizens by asking if they had healthcare complaints over any treatment received or surgical procedure. Once the caller located a target who had a complaint but no legal counsel, the caller would then claim to belong to a reputed American law firm that could help them in getting ‘potential compensation’ for a fee. In this way, targets would be made to pay fee online to the tune of 650 dollars or so, and then duped.
Prelimiry investigation has revealed that the two kingpins of the fake call centres in Cleve Colony are both outsiders. The busting of this fake call centre racket in Shillong closely mirrors Guwahati police operations about a fortnight back that took out two call centres operating in Basistha and Bhetapara areas of the city. The modus operandi was the same — impersoting IRS officials to deceive US citizens and get them to part with ‘fines’. What has stunned investigators is the scale of the scam, and how efficiently it was carried out. From prelimiry findings like lists of thousands of potential American targets, IRS details and other US administration data, it is suspected that the scamsters hacked into US servers to mine the information. Alarmingly, the trail from Guwahati has led to the Sagar Thakkar group busted in Maharashtra last October. Arrested in April this year, Thakkar has been revealed to be the mastermind of the IRS call centre scam that is said to have extorted $300 million from over 15,000 American tax payers since 2013. The suspicion is that the scamsters are now trying to shift operations to other States of the country. Among the four accused in the Basistha call centre scam, three hail from Gujarat, Harya and Bihar; Guwahati police is now said to be on the lookout for a Sagar Thakkar associate from Ahmedabad.
This scam has clearly assumed multi-State dimension even as police in various States are trying to hunt down other members of the Thakkar group. Assam and Meghalaya police therefore need to urgently root out any such scamsters trying to set up shop here. After all, this scam is being considered a blot on the entire Indian BPO industry. Northeastern States have long identified the Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) sector as a potential avenue for employment generation that can check the exodus of youths to other parts of the country. But the BPO sector relies greatly on trust and comfort level between clients and service providers. Once service providers break that trust by hijacking official and persol data of clients, and then manipulate data related to their income, savings, mortgages, taxes and other details — loss of business is inevitable. With countries across the world taking a hardline against economic offences, there is no way State governments in India can afford to let up on such fraudulent and crimil activities. Allegations are now surfacing that the group operating the fake call centre at Basistha had political links in Dispur. Considering how chit funds duped lakhs of small depositors in the State because the fraudsters had godfathers in Dispur, Assam police needs to be on the alert against suspect entities that can give workers here a bad me.