Police officials escorting Sagar Thakkar, who is accused of running a lucrative Internal Revenue Service call center scam, to a police station in Thane, on the outskirts of Mumbai, India, on Saturday. Reuters
MUMBAI — The #police on Saturday detained a 24-year-old man suspected of running a multimillion–dollar fraud from a network of Indian call centers, tricking hundreds of unwitting Americans into believing they owed money to the Internal Revenue Service.
Sagar Thakkar, known as Shaggy, was apprehended by immigration officials in Mumbai after arriving on a flight from Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, where the police said he had been living since a raid on his call centers in October. He was charged with extortion, cheating by impersonation and wire fraud, and is expected to remain in custody until April 15.
Mr. Thakkar’s lawyer could not be reached on Saturday.
Officials accuse Mr. Thakkar of leveraging India’s vast supply of tech-savvy, English-speaking workers and modern communications technology to earn as much as $150,000 a day at the height of the fraud.
Many of Mr. Thakkar’s nearly 700 young employees would call United States citizens, impersonate I.R.S. agents and demand immediate payment for unpaid taxes. The police estimated that he may have bilked Americans out of $100 million dollars over the telephone.
The police have been hunting for Mr. Thakkar since the call center raid last year. They believe an informer tipped him off to the raid, said Abhishek Trimukhe, deputy commissioner of police in Thane.
Mr. Thakkar’s lavish fugitive lifestyle has intrigued Indian crime reporters, who chronicled his purchase of a $400,000 German sports car from one of India’s most famous cricket players as a gift for his girlfriend.
Investigators said that Mr. Thakkar had recruited former schoolmates for the fraud by driving them in limousines and hosting them at opulent restaurants.
“He appears like a regular guy; he doesn’t appear like a criminal if you talk to him,” said Param Bir Singh, Thane’s police commissioner. “But very, very tech-savvy and very, very smart.”
Mr. Thakkar spent the past six months in Dubai. He told the police he lived there using a residential permit, which he claimed was linked to a Dubai-based shell company. He returned to India of his own volition, perhaps because he had run out of money, Mr. Trimukhe said. He returned to India with no luggage, carrying only two mobile phones and travel documents, the police said.
In conversations with the police, Mr. Thakkar described himself as the child of a lower-middle class family from Gujarat who made his first foray into call-center work at 15, carrying out customer phone surveys about buying and selling cars, and then selling those leads to automotive retailers.
He learned about call-center swindles a few years later from friends, and decided to replicate the model on a large scale, enlisting dozens of school friends, Mr. Trimukhe said.
“His entire family was in Ahmedabad and they’re lower middle class; I don’t think they really needed it,” Mr. Trimukhe said. “He wanted fast money. There is no other intention for this. In Ahmedabad there is a culture of business, they want to earn big money.”
The police said on Saturday that they were confident their actions had “heavily dented” the illegal call-center industry.
“Mr. Thakkar has shared that there were many call centers running in the country, which after our raid have shut down,” Mr. Singh said.
The police said they were scouring Mr. Thakkar’s phones for information, but that he had disposed of the iPhone he had used to run the fraud. They said they had found only a handful of contacts and no trace of his past communications on his new phones.
By AYESHA VENKATARAMAN NYT.com
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