A major credit for India’s growth in the post-liberalization years goes to the service sector. In the late 90s and early 2000s, India’s backend tech support became the backbone of Silicon Valley. Somehow, things have changed radically in the last few years. Indian tech support is making Indians lose big. Apparently, the Jamtara model is hurting our soft power image.
FBI has a permanent representative at US embassy
The American Federal Bureau of Investigation has revealed that Indians are duping the elderly and other more gullible citizens of America. Scams from Indian callers comprise nearly 20 percent of the total money lost by American citizens.
Out of the total $17.1 billion, more than $3 billion (Rs 25,000 crores) were transferred to Indian call centre scammers. A major chunk of this $3 billion is related to romance-related scams, colloquially termed “honey traps.” It comprises more than 67 percent of the aforementioned figure. Fraud by pretending as tech supporters comprise the rest 33 per cent of scams.
However, the trend is reversing. Romance-related scams are declining at an annual rate. In contrast, “tech support” scams are growing at a rate of 130 percent year-on-year terms. The problem seems to be getting out of hand for American investigative agencies. This is the reason why the FBI has deputed a permanent representative at the US embassy in New Delhi.
The representative will work in close collaboration with the CBI, Interpol, and Delhi Police. Suhel Daud, the legal attaché with the US embassy, said, “It may not be a national security concern yet, but reputation (of a country) is involved, and we don’t want India to suffer on that count,”
Indeed, the concern is quite big. It has acquired a gigantic place, especially in the last 3–4 years. India is fast emerging as a reliable partner for countries all across the world. India has been at the forefront of assisting countries with food, medicine, military equipment, and other necessities.
Along with that, India’s hard power has also risen on account of its victories at forums like the WTO, WEF, UNSC, BRICS, and other supranational bodies. To buttress these victories, India’s soft power is working in tandem. Indian brands are becoming more reliable than made-in-China products. Similarly, India’s cuisine is also increasing our clout among the masses.
The genesis of fraud lies in trust
Even the kind of scamming Americans are facing are being done by Indians because Indians spent decades in developing reliability for themselves. As American IT giants ran towards India in search of cheap labour and higher returns on investments, Indian call centres became a big hit. Compared to local customer care executives of foreign companies, Indians are polite, considerate, patient listeners, and most importantly, down to earth.
These qualities helped Indians solve companies’ customers’ problems in a better way. Within a matter of time, India became a hub of back-end support for companies all across the world. These call centres quickly metamorphosed into massive chains of background customer support operations. According to a 2020 report by “The New York Times,” call centres enable India’s expansive outsourcing industry, which generates around $28 billion in revenue per year. It also employs over 12 lakh people.
That level of scale can only be achieved if the business model is saleable. It became saleable because millions of Indians put their heart and soul into it. This kind of reputation helped us build infographic pitches for inviting big companies to invest in India. The fact that India is grabbing FDIs in substantial chunks during the global recession is a testament to the soft power status built by billions of man-hours spent by Indians.
But! every good thing comes with a flaw. These call centres are no different. Within a few years, an overambitious generation of Indians has joined the industry. This generation is filled with dreams about a nihilistic lifestyle of pubs, nightclubs, liquor, high-end tech instruments, and of course, expensive cars, pushed into the culture mainly by Punjabi and Bollywood pop songs. Of course, that is impossible for someone who works 12 hours in a call centre, spends two hours travelling to and fro, and survives on two bananas and coffee.
The backbreaking schedule, along with dreams of a high-end lifestyle, tells them to compromise a bit on their integrity. This is where the scammers catch them. All of these ambitious people have is conversational skills. This is brought into play by scammers. In fact, scammers are the ones ending up with a substantial chunk of the profits incurred from it. Their justification is that they provide sophisticated infrastructure for the treacherous work.
People at the senior level of hierarchy involve coders who design software to steal data, manage office computers, hide IP addresses, secure local wi-fi connections to remain out of the purview of local police, and many more.
Additionally, there is another team whose members hold accounts in foreign banks from which the stolen money is re-routed to India. They also have a threat perception team that keeps warning everyone involved in the business about any upcoming police action or spy network conspiring to nab them. This team works like the deep state of the American power bloc and hacks into phone details to find information. They regularly update this information in telegram groups.
Tricks used to scam
After all these processes are finalised, scamsters hire these call centre workers. They are paid more than double the salary they were getting in their previous jobs. All they have to do is engage their prey with a certain kind of emotional message. The target audience consists primarily of Americans over the age of 50. These Americans are not well updated with changing times and mainly rely on social security pensions from American governments to sustain themselves. Some of them do have their own savings, but they are always hunting for more investment opportunities.
One way they are scammed is through the phone. When they pick the call, the voice on the other end tells them to invest their money in certain schemes. For the last few years, they have mainly used crypto investment as a tactic. Since it is not that easy to take money out of bank accounts, they ask old people to withdraw cash and use Bitcoin or any other crypto ATM for investment purposes. Astoundingly, they do it as well. From there on, the crypto is transferred to the scammers’ wallets, who have a separate team to encash them.
Another way is that of offering loans. After the consumer is lured, the scamsters ask them for a certain fee for sanctioning the loan. In this way, they get the details of their bank accounts, from which it becomes easier to steal money. On top of that, these consumers are told to buy a gift card and load it with a large amount of money (loan money in most instances).
They are lured into encashing gift cards by fake information that the gift cards are only redeemable for a limited period. They are then made to read the numbers of these gift cards loudly, which leads to the syphoning of funds from their accounts.
The most shrewd of them is fraud through fear. One way of scaring them is by telling locals that their computers are running out of security. Normally, anti-virus protection packages have a fixed time period. Moreover, people often forget about it. Scamsters take advantage of it. They call gullible old people and tell them that they have to recharge their package, and the caller is there to support them.
With the trust developed, the caller gets access to minute details of the computer, and within no time, the bank account number, credit/debit card number, social security number, and password, among other details, are available to the caller. If the person has less money in their bank account, the caller will only speak for ones and takes it all. In cases of hefty amounts, the caller establishes a long-term bond with people and syphons off funds in a sophisticated way. Through this process, it usually takes 4 to 5 months to bankrupt the account.
The second way to create panic in the minds of people is through impersonation. The caller assumes the identity of local authorities, generally from the FBI, CIA, Internal Revenue Service, or Federal Trade Commission. After scaring them off, he or she tells them that their bank accounts have been frozen.
To make matters worse, the circumstances surrounding the discovery of their bank accounts by authorities are described as places involving drug cartels and other crime scenes. They are asked to pay a hefty sum in order to relieve them of any criminal charges. Somehow, this type of scam is the one that gets nabbed by the Police, possibly because high-level echelons gets bad rep for it.
Actions taken till date
In 2016, the Maharashtra Police pulled up 630 people for these kinds of fraud. Allegedly, Americans were losing $230,000 per day due to “fake tax officials'” calls from Indians. By mid-2017, American officials had ramped up their efforts. Fifty individuals, including three Indians, and five India-based call centres were charged with fraud. Three Indians had already pleaded guilty.
In 2019, Americans extradited an Indian citizen named Hitesh Madhubhai Patel, 42, from Singapore for the same crime. Then Assistant Attorney General Brian Benczkowski released a strict warning to Indian scammers.
Despite that, people hell-bent on destroying India’s reputation did not stop. In early 2020, US officials filed lawsuits against 5 companies and 3 individuals for making millions of fake robocalls. Later that year, a Gurugram call centre was raided for duping over 30,000 Americans in total. Towards the end of the year, Delhi Police arrested over 50 people for call centre fraud. More than 4,500 Americans fell for it and handed over funds worth $14 million to Indian callers.
These raids had no effect on call centers. Then YouTubers Jim Robinson, ScamBaiter, Mark Rober, and Trilogy Media took matters into their own hands. In a year-long investigation, they documented the modus operandi of Kolkata-based scammers.
They were quite disappointed to realise that the local police would not be able to do much with their input. Certainly, one call centre was raided, but the rot continues to grow. A mentor in this illegal industry told Channel Asia, “You can shut down an office. It’s possible; it does happen a lot. But you can never shut down a business,”
Will the CBI restore India’s reputation?
Now, the CBI is on the ground. It has started Operation Chakra to end this menace. The central agency has had early success too and has been able to nab a few individuals through its Cyber Crime Investigation Division (CCID). CCID is collaborating with Interpol, the FBI, and the enforcement agencies in Canada and Australia to keep a close eye on the digital footprints of suspects. But there are a few loopholes.
One of them is a lack of technical know-how. Indian law enforcement agencies have been slow to catch up with technology. Even tracking through VPN is still a tedious job for our personnel. Sources say that police raids are conducted only after a tip from an insider and not after an active investigation by the police.
Until our digital infrastructure gets a big upgrade, it is futile to hope for a big change. Raids will keep happening, centres will keep changing their locations, and people will keep getting duped. The biggest losers are Indians living abroad. Their relations with neighbours go bad due to such issues. Relations between nations going bad is just a bigger manifestation of this local level distrust.
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