WASHINGTON — It can be a frightening call to get — and it's a familiar one for many thousands of Americans.
Callers posing as tax and immigration agents are threatening arrest, deportation or other punishment unless money is sent to help clear up what they say is a deportation warrant or to cover supposedly unpaid income taxes.
The government says it's a scam that has tricked at least 15,000 people into shelling out more than $300 million.
The callers primarily targeted immigrants and the elderly and preyed on people's worst fears — that they could be locked up in prison or forced to leave the country — officials said.
In a first-of-its-kind nationwide takedown, the Justice Department announced charges Thursday against 61 defendants in the United States and abroad in connection with call center operations based in India. As agents fanned out across the country to make arrests, officials in Washington said they wanted to alert the public that the calls are all part of a criminal fraud.
"The U.S. government does not operate in this manner," said Assistant Attorney General Leslie Caldwell, head of the Justice Department's criminal division. "We never call to demand that money be loaded immediately onto prepaid cards. U.S. government agencies do not call to demand immediate payments to avoid deportation or to avoid arrest."
The indictment, which was issued by a federal grand jury last week in Houston, charges the defendants — which include five call centers — with crimes including wire fraud, money laundering and false impersonation of an officer of the United States. Authorities served nine warrants in eight states and arrested 20 people in the international fraud and money-laundering investigation, Caldwell said.
The indictment outlines a complex web of criminal actors, each with a different role in the conspiracy.
Callers posing as officials with the Internal Revenue Service and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement would tell unsuspecting victims on the other end that they had failed to pay taxes they owed or that they were at risk of deportation, and that a fast payment was needed to get them out of trouble.
The names and personal information of the potential targets were purchased through data brokers. "Runners" would then be responsible for retrieving the payments of the scammed funds and then depositing them in bank accounts. The funds that were extorted were laundered through wire transfers or prepaid debit cards registered with misappropriated personal information, the Justice Department said.
Though the calls would seem to be obviously bogus, officials say that even savvy and successful individuals have been duped. The callers would use information about their victims they learned through the Internet to present a facade of authenticity, and the number that appeared on a caller ID seemed to come from a legitimate U.S. government agency.
Among the victims: an elderly San Diego woman who forked over $12,300 after she was threatened with arrest if she didn't pay a penalty for fictitious tax violations. And when a Colorado man did not respond to repeated demands that he pay supposed back taxes, scammers posing as him called 911 and said that he was armed and eager to kill police officers, prompting law enforcement officers to surround him at home, officials said.
"The scammers in this case and so many like it are convincing. They are menacing and they are ruthless in their pursuit of their victims," said Bruce Foucart of ICE's Homeland Security Investigations. "They convey authority that leaves their victims terrified."
In a separate but similar call center scam, authorities in India said earlier this month that they'd arrested 70 people and were questioning hundreds more.