Column: Rare victory: Ringleaders of ‘sickening’ IRS call scam are brought to justice
It seems like telemarketers and phone fraudsters operate with impunity, unconcerned about getting caught, particularly if they’re based overseas. That, I’m pleased to report, may be changing.
U.S. authorities recently announced that 21 ringleaders in California and seven other states have been sentenced to up to 20 years in prison for using India-based call centers to defraud thousands of Americans out of hundreds of millions of dollars.
Nearly three dozen others in the western India city of Ahmedabad have been indicted on wire fraud, money laundering and other charges.
But don’t think you’re in the clear.
“Unfortunately, we know that this ring isn’t the only group of con artists out there,” said Emily Rusch, executive director of the California Public Interest Research Group.
“Big data brokers and lax privacy rules have made it all too easy for thieves to access our personal information and flood American phone lines and email addresses with attempted scams,” she told me.
You may not know any of these perpetrators, but you’re likely familiar with their work.
Operating from five Indian call centers, they bombarded U.S. households with bogus claims of being tax or immigration officials. The call recipient owed Uncle Sam money, they warned, and arrest or deportation was imminent.
Victims were instructed to immediately wire funds or use prepaid cards to make amends.
I’ve gotten this call more times than I can count, particularly on my landline. You have too, I’m guessing.
“This type of fraud is sickening,” U.S. Atty. Ryan Patrick of the Southern District of Texas said in a statement. The sentences were handed down last week in a Houston courtroom.
“These con artists are finally headed to prison,” he said. “We will simply not stand by and allow criminals to use the names of legitimate government agencies to enrich themselves by victimizing others.”
Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions called the case “one of the most significant victories to date in our continuing efforts to combat elder fraud and the victimization of the most vulnerable members of the U.S. public.”
It’s rare that so many federal agencies combine to battle con artists. The years-long investigation involved the Justice Department, the Department of Homeland Security, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Treasury Department.
The U.S.-based perpetrators were all of Indian descent. They apparently targeted people using lists legally obtained from data brokers and other sources.
Twenty-two of the defendants were told to pay about $9 million in restitution to known victims.
Yet as encouraging as this crackdown may be, the relative handful of scammers involved represents just a drop in the bucket when it comes to fraud entering people’s lives through electronic means — phones, computers, etc.
The reality is that in the digital age, scams can originate anywhere and often are beyond the reach of U.S. law-enforcement agencies.
“As important as these convictions are, fraud, schemes and scams will no doubt continue in many guises,” said Sally Greenberg, executive director of the National Consumers League. “We must never let down our guard or ease up on the scammers.”
I wrote on Tuesday about kidnap-scam calls that the FBI says frequently come from Mexico — often made by inmates of Mexican prisons with plenty of time on their hands.
The scam involves frightening a parent into thinking his or her child is being held hostage and that serious harm will result unless funds are immediately provided.
The Southern California man I wrote about, who got bilked out of thousands of dollars, demonstrated how easy it can be to fall into this trap when your child can’t be reached. In his case, and purely by coincidence, his teenage daughter was on a camping trip near the Mexican border.
The IRS scam is an easier one to avoid. Just remember that the tax agency will never, ever call you if you owe money. Almost all contact with taxpayers is made via snail mail.
On the rare occasions when the IRS might call, ask for a name and office location, then go online, get the number yourself and call back.
Tax officials will never demand immediate payment, and they won’t threaten you with arrest or deportation.
Derek Benner, a senior ICE official, said last week’s sentencing of these IRS scammers “should serve as a strong deterrent to anyone considering taking part in similar scams.”
Should. But don’t hold your breath.
I wrote last week about a snail-mail scam letter that relied on recipients feeling guilty about cheating on their wives. The one I received demanded $8,600 in bitcoin to keep my “secret” a secret.
Numerous readers have since told me about a near-identical extortion scam making the rounds, this one arriving in the form of email. It relies on people feeling a sense of shame about viewing online porn.
It says the email sender hacked an adult-video site. “You visited this website to experience fun (you know what I mean),” it says.
“While you were busy watching videos, your internet browser ... provided me with access to your display as well as webcam. After that, my software program gathered your entire contacts from messenger, Facebook, as well as e-mail.”
The email seems legit because it often includes a password the recipient has used at some point, perhaps years ago. The website Krebs on Security says these passwords almost certainly were obtained via past data breaches.
As with the infidelity letter, the email goes on to present two options. The first is to ignore the threat, which the scammer says will result in a video of you “experiencing fun” being sent “to your entire contacts, including friends and family, coworkers and so forth.”
Option two consists of paying thousands of dollars in bitcoin and “you keep your routine life as if none of this ever occurred.”
An FBI spokeswoman told me scammers are increasingly using bitcoin and other virtual currencies for payoffs. Otherwise, both these rackets prey on people’s sense of guilt or shame — and an assumption that having an affair or watching porn online is a common occurrence.
I’m not saying you have nothing to fear. But I laughed off the scam letter I received.
I also advise only hooking up a webcam when you need it.