Federal authorities charged 56 people with posing as Internal Revenue Service agents and immigration authorities to siphon more than $300 million from thousands of unwitting victims to clear fictitious deportation warrants and tax debts, USA Today reports. The scheme, which employed a network of telephone call centers based in India, relied on personal information obtained from data brokers to target at least 15,000 victims with threats of fines, deportation, or imprisonment if they did not pay the demanded fees. In thousands of cases where victims agreed to settle the fictitious accounts, the money allegedly was laundered through groups of U.S. co-conspirators using wire transfers and debit cards.
Twenty of the 24 U.S. suspects were arrested yesterday. Thirty-two suspects were believed to be living in India. U.S. officials said that they would seek to prosecute the Indian suspects in the U.S. “This is a transnational problem and demonstrates that modern criminals target Americans both from inside our borders and from abroad,” said Assistant Attorney General Leslie Caldwell. The co-conspirators apparently used so-called “hawala transfers” in which money is transferred internationally outside of the banking system to direct extorted funds to accounts belonging to U.S.-based individuals. In one case, prosecutors allege that a call center extorted $12,300 from an 85-year-old San Diego woman after threatening her with arrest if she did not settle phony tax violations. Another California victim lost $136,000 to suspects posing as IRS agents demanding payment for fictitious tax charges.