WASHINGTON (CN) — Authorities arrested 20 people Thursday on charges that they impersonated IRS and federal immigration officials in phone calls that bilked over 15,000 victims out of hundreds of millions of dollars.
The alleged scammers called their victims and pretend to be representatives of government agencies seeking to collect on unpaid back taxes or other fines.
Targeting immigrants and the elderly, they threatened their victims with deportation or arrest if they did not pay the fake fines, the U.S. Department of Justice claims.
If the victims agreed to pay, the alleged scammers would sometimes instruct them to buy prepaid cards and give them the serial number. The conspirators would then transfer the money from the victims' prepaid cards to other cards, called GPR cards, that were often in the names of victims of identity theft separate from the impersonation scheme, according to the indictment filed in Southern Texas federal court and unsealed Thursday.
The alleged U.S.-based conspirators would then use the GPR cards to buy money orders, which they deposited in U.S. bank accounts, the indictment states.
"They used a variety of schemes to trick frightened individuals over the phone by tapping into their worst fears - that they would be arrested, they would be deported, that they would face other problems with the U.S. government or state and local law enforcement authorities," Assistant Attorney General Leslie R. Caldwell said at a press conference announcing the charges.
The unsealed indictment charges 61 people and call centers for their involvement in the scheme. Thirty-two of the people named in the indictment and five of the call centers are in India, according to the announcement.
The United States will seek to extradite the defendants who are in India, Caldwell said.
The indictment says over 15,000 "telefraud" victims have been identified so far, with "hundreds of millions of dollars of victim losses."
Twenty people were arrested in the United States on Thursday, and an additional U.S.-based defendant is in the custody of immigration authorities, according to the announcement.
The charges include conspiracy to commit identify theft, false impersonation of an officer of the United States, wire fraud and money laundering.
In one case, the alleged scammers got $136,000 from a California citizen from whom they demanded money for supposed tax violations. The victim paid the phony fine in 276 prepaid cards, which the scammers then allegedly transferred to other debit cards, prosecutors say.
In another, the alleged scammers called the police on a Colorado man who did not respond to their calls demanding he pay four years of back taxes, telling authorities he was armed and wanted to kill police. Police surrounded the man's house, where his daughter was home alone.
While the officials announcing the arrests and charges Thursday insisted the action is significant, they admitted that the alleged scammers are resilient and that it won't necessarily stop such calls from coming. They warned people to continue to be vigilant for these types of scams.
"You're right that a lot of the folks who we're arresting today can be replaced by other people, but I think the message of today's takedown is this is the first time we've done this in a coordinated, nationwide way and I think the message of this is we are now taking action against these kinds of groups in the United States," Caldwell said at the press conference Thursday.
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