At its core, the Texas-tied, India-based, multi-million dollar phone scam ring broken up by the feds this month was a sophisticated exploitation of stolen personal data and brute threats delivered by phone.
Now, those the U.S. Department of Justice are accusing of fraud are facing decades in jail and millions of dollars in fines and restitution.
Here's how the scam worked: The firm collected phone numbers from data brokers. Phone banks cold called the names. Those who stayed on the line long enough to hear the pitch were told that the operator calling them was an agent of the Internal Revenue Service or U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Then the threats began. People receiving the calls were told that they owed back taxes or fines. If they didn't pay up, the person calling them said, they would face time in prison, fines or deportation. When people did pay — and more than 15,000 mostly elderly people and new immigrants did — an apparatus set up to fence the proceeds kicked in, the DOJ says.
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"If the victims agreed to pay, the call centers would then immediately turn to a network of U.S.-based co-conspirators to liquidate and launder the extorted funds as quickly as possible by purchasing prepaid debit cards or through wire transfers," the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Northern District of Texas alleged on Thursday. "The prepaid debit cards were often registered using misappropriated personal identifying information of thousands of identity theft victims, and the wire transfers were directed by the criminal associates using fake names and fraudulent identifications."
This is where Irving fits into the scheme. Narasimha Bhogavalli, owner of a couple of Las Colinas businesses, is accused of being one of the fences for all the stolen cash. Using three local bank accounts, Bhogavalli allegedly laundered more than $3 million over a six-month period beginning in November 2015, by depositing almost 2,500 money orders and then sending the acquired cash to other accounts in his control, before finally wiring the money to the scheme's backers in India.
In one instance, the feds say, a San Diego woman was bilked out of $12,800, which was then deposited onto a prepaid debit card. That card was then used to buy money orders in Frisco. Those money orders were then given to a fence, either Bhogavalli or another person playing the same role, to deposit and launder. Another victim in California gave the scammers more than $135,000 to pay back taxes he didn't owe.
More than 60 people have been arrested for taking part in the scheme, Assistant Attorney General Leslie R. Caldwell said Thursday. "The arrests we made today demonstrate the Justice Department’s commitment to identifying and prosecuting the individuals behind these impersonation and telefraud schemes, who seek to profit by exploiting some of the most vulnerable members of our communities," Caldwell said. "This is a transnational problem, and demonstrates that modern criminals target Americans both from inside our borders and from abroad."