The conmen behind a scam robbing taxpayers of millions of pounds can be exposed by the Daily Mail today.
Working from a ramshackle office in India, they pose as HMRC officials to terrorise up to 10,000 Britons a day.
Victims are told they owe tax and face arrest and imprisonment if they do not pay up instantly. Some have lost as much as £20,000.
HMRC staff dealt with 330 repayment fraud cases a day in the six months to January – 60,000 in all and 360 per cent up on the previous half-year. Not all the victims will have come forward.
The fraudsters boasted they did not fear being tracked down by British authorities. But the Mail has passed details of the Ahmedabad-based gang to Indian police who have pledged action.
HMRC investigators have also asked to see our evidence. Our investigation also revealed that:
- Indian scam call centres are involved in more than one in ten reported frauds in the UK;
- Men using just laptops and the BT phonebook are making hundreds of thousands of pounds a year from UK victims;
- Many are tricked into making multiple bank payments after being told the original transfer did not go through;
- The gang buys British phone numbers – even copying the HMRC phone number – to make the scam appear genuine;
- Fraudsters operating overseas request payments into British bank accounts including NatWest to make them appear authentic.
The revelations come in the wake of Money Mail’s Stop the Bank Scammers campaign, which is calling for action against a fraud epidemic costing families £1million a day.
Our team infiltrated the 18-strong gang at its fake call centre in the northern Indian city of Ahmedabad. The scammers select targets randomly from the BT online phone directory and call them posing as HMRC officials.
Following a script, they warn about impending court proceedings for unpaid tax and demand immediate payment.
One fraudster said: ‘We threaten them. Once they feel the fear they’re gonna pay.’
Victims told the Mail of the huge financial and emotional toll of losing up to £20,000.
Other gangs operating from Ahmedabad use similar scams to target American and Australian victims. The FBI has sent agents to tackle the issue but Indian police said they had had no contact with the British authorities.
Charlie Elphicke, a Tory member of the Commons Treasury committee, said: ‘Scammers should not be allowed to get away with fleecing hard-working British citizens.
‘Phone fraud often targets the most vulnerable people, leaving them out of pocket and extremely distressed. This country has access to the most sophisticated police expertise and technology. We should be using it to crack down on anyone committing these cowardly crimes – no matter what corner of the world they are operating from.’
Labour MP John Mann, who also sits on the committee, said: ‘It’s a very big problem which the Foreign Office should be taking action on.
‘India sells lots of goods to us. Ministers and embassies should be pushing the Indian authorities to clamp down on the fraudsters.’
Baroness Altmann, a former pensions minister, said her mother, who is in her 80s, was petrified after the gang called to say they would be sending officers to arrest her.
‘The British police and Government should definitely be doing their utmost to prevent these gangs from accessing the private phone numbers of British citizens,’ she said.
‘It is really frightening that vulnerable elderly people can receive such phone calls, purporting to come from the authorities, which frighten them into transferring thousands of pounds to thieves without realising they are being scammed. It would make a huge difference if the scammers were stopped from using bogus UK phone numbers and the telecoms industry and the Government should introduce measures to prevent people from being able to hide their genuine identity.’
Action Fraud, the national fraud and cyber reporting centre, said around half the cases it dealt with came from abroad and at least 10 per cent involved India.
As well as unpaid tax, the scams included computer software service fraud and calls concerning loans and PPI refunds.
Many of the calls are made to appear to originate from the United Kingdom, with a British phone number often being displayed on the victim’s home or mobile phone.
A spokesman for HMRC said: ‘We became aware of phone scams using the threat of HMRC action escalating during 2018, with a significant increase to over 4,000 reports a month from July 2018. In the 12 months to February 2019 we received 73,382 reports of suspicious HMRC phone calls, and from that reported over 400 unique numbers to carriers to have the number removed from use.
‘HMRC only call individuals for payment of a debt they are already aware of. Our advice is that if you are in any doubt about an incoming call, end the conversation and contact HMRC online or use Action Fraud.’
City of London Police, which specialises in fraud and cyber crime, said the international nature of crime made it difficult to trace payments and suspects. ‘Suspects that have been involved in call centres of this nature can often move on very quickly,’ said a spokesman.
Inside a dirt-grey block in the Indian city of Ahmedabad, a cheery young man wearing a headset places a call to a pensioner in north London.
‘Sir, this is Matthew and I’m calling you from HMRC. How are you doing today?’
The elderly gentleman replies politely before call centre ‘worker’ Samkit Jain gets straight to business. ‘Sir, we just wanted to know if you received the yellow slip regarding your case? Your case for tax fraud.’
It is 4,250 miles from this northern Indian city, where Mahatma Gandhi led his peaceful campaign for independence, to the leafy suburbs of London. Yet the panicked shrieks of Jain’s elderly, vulnerable victim rang out as if he were in the room next door.
Desperately, the pensioner pleaded with Jain to contact the accountant who dealt with his tax affairs. As the call concluded, the fraudster gave a satisfied smile. ‘Yeah, he was scared,’ Jain said.
This is the modern face of call centre crime: An almost untraceable network of Indian gangsters preying on tens of thousands of British victims a day using only a laptop, a headset and the BT phonebook. It is hardly sophisticated, but deadly effective.
I became the first journalist to infiltrate these booming, illicit businesses, and discovered the astonishing riches being brazenly plundered from British taxpayers.
Posing as a businessman interested in forging a partnership with the criminals, I met a gang of young men at the forefront of a banking fraud crimewave that has left the authorities scrambling to act.
My cover story was that I had access to financial information regarding potential British victims which I could provide the gang, but first I wanted to see how the scam worked.
Outwardly charming and polite, the fraudsters imitate the officers of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs using accents learned from Hollywood movies. By targeting up to 10,000 British people a day, telling them they face arrest for failing to pay enough tax, the 18 scammers share spoils of over £1million a year: Every penny of it stolen from terrified British taxpayers.
As one of the cynical fraudsters boasted to me with a broad grin: ‘We threaten them. Once they feel the fear, they’re gonna pay.’ The men I spoke to said they usually have about five ‘hits’ a night, making an average of £5,000 – but sometimes far more. They boasted of colleagues who made £200,000 in a single day from one unfortunate victim.
With returns this high, should we be surprised that one in ten of all British fraud cases now originate in India?
The gang at the forefront of this frightening new goldrush had a deceptively simple set-up. They gathered in a bare room overlooking a bustling road, with laptops open on plain wooden tables.
A muscle-bound graduate named Krishna Borah appeared to be the gang’s de facto boss. Borrowing corporate language, he introduced me to one of his star performers: A ‘closer’ called Sandeep Soni whose job is to extract cash from customers – as they euphemistically call their victims. Dressed in electric blue trainers, denim jeans and an open-neck checked shirt, a multi-coloured macrame bracelet round his wrist, Soni welcomed me with an enthusiastic handshake, saying: ‘Good to see you, man.’
Proudly, he took me through the details of the scam. On average, he said, they target 10,000 Britons a day with an automated message informing them there is a case against them for non-payment of tax, telling the victim they must call back to discuss it.
Soni then scrolled through potential victims in London on his laptop, the familiar BT logo popping up at the top of the screen.
‘It’s the British phone book,’ his fellow closer, Samkit Jain, explained. ‘We randomly select any surnames or first names and then just call them.’
Calls are made from the computer, and Jain showed me how they use software to make it appear they are calling from the UK. On the day I visited, they had stolen a genuine HMRC number to show up as their caller ID.
‘You can simply Google the number,’ Jain explained when I asked how he had got it. ‘Whatever you wanna display. I can even display your number.’
For the demonstration, they decided to cold call victims directly to show how easily they can be intimidated. Soni plugged in his headset and called a number in Pimlico, central London.
When a man answered, he instantly switched from his heavily accented English to a Western intonation and said: ‘I’m a lawyer for the HMRC fraud division, my name is Dave Smith, badge ID 100581. Let me tell you, this call is being recorded and monitored so right now you are not able to disconnect the phone call.
‘If you disconnect the phone call, unfortunately we have to start the legal procedures by contacting the authorities, OK?’
As the call continued, Soni read from a five-page script on the laptop in front of him, which contained answers to any questions the victim might have.
The script also carries details of threats to make. For example, they tell the victim that they face charges for unpaid tax worth over £8,000, but that this could rise to over £70,000 with court costs. The script also warns that the victim’s bank account, pension and other finances will be frozen. It even goes into significant detail about how ‘non-compliance’ will lead to prosecution for violation of tax regulations. The gang admit that they don’t know what the genuine British laws are.
But no-one listening to Soni would have realised this, as he calmly but firmly asserted his fabricated authority over the unfortunate man on the phone.
When the victim challenged him, he barked back: ‘Can I have your lawyer’s information? You do have a lawyer right?’ As he was talking, Jain explained: ‘We have to keep confusing people, making them believe that this is the real thing. That’s the important part.’
This is why people hand over their money. These men catch their victims at vulnerable moments and are highly convincing, even taking their victims to the HMRC website during the call to help establish their credibility.
Soni said the key to ‘success’ was to get the victim to plead to be allowed to ‘pay back’ the non-existent debt. ‘We don’t tell the people that we are asking for money,’ he explained.
‘We just threaten them with legal procedures… Once they feel the fear they pay directly from their side. They’re going to tell us from their side that “I want to pay and I want to resolve this.”’
Gang members said the best targets were those aged over 40, and ideally ‘old and rich’. Soni said: ‘Older people say: “What’s wrong with me? What’s wrong with my information? Why did the government call me?”’
In a further cynical twist, they often prey on elderly Asian immigrants with poor English – and then offer to provide a translator to talk them through what they need to do to ‘repay’ the money.
New immigrants are an easy target, as they are often less aware of how the British tax system works. The gang threatens them with deportation if they refuse to pay.
Victims are made to pay using their online bank account, and those without online banking are instructed to put cash directly into a deposit box.
Mohid Trivedi, the call centre’s office manager, explained that after terrorising victims into agreeing to pay, they sometimes have to calm them down to ensure they have received the cash. He explained: ‘We have to let the caller get some rest. We say: “Drink some water, don’t be so scared.” We say: “We have put your payment on hold. Once your payment has been made it will be resolved, so don’t worry.” It’s all about psychology.’
The utter fear that the scammers drive into the hearts of their victims is clear. Trivedi added of the victims’ desperation: ‘Some customers have sold cars and things like that to pay... they panic.’
The closers’ fake accents had an American twang, and on occasion the diction slipped as they said ‘attorney’ rather than solicitor. This, it turned out, was because, despite speaking to and cruelly tricking thousands of Britons every day, none of these call centre fraudsters had ever been to the UK.
Astonishingly, they learnt their patter from watching Hollywood films. ‘It was Bride Wars or something like that,’ explained Jain.
Ahmedabad has previously been identified as the nerve centre of an ‘enormous and complex’ Indian call centre fraud which used fake tax debts to fleece around 15,000 US citizens.
That ring was finally smashed after the US Justice Department, working with the Indian authorities, launched a crackdown and arrested scores of people.
FBI agents were back in Ahmedabad when the Mail visited last month, orchestrating a string of raids on more fake call centres around the city which led to numerous arrests and extensive coverage in the local Press.
But while US authorities are visibly trying to tackle the scourge of call centre fraud, the scammers say they have no concerns about their UK counterparts.
Asked if anyone from Britain ever tried to catch them, Jain said simply: ‘Never.’ Trivedi added that it was ‘not possible’ to trace them because their IP address, an internet protocol that identifies the location of computers worldwide, is registered to Afghanistan.
When I spoke to the British police they insisted that they are taking steps to crack down on the gangs – but in the meantime, the money keeps rolling in, and the victims are mounting.
In the hour I was inside the fake call centre, at least three victims came under pressure to hand over their money. And it is no wonder, when bonuses of ‘hard cash’ are paid to closers if they hit targets of ten or twenty thousand pounds.
Speaking of his motivation to keep the scam running, Soni boasted: ‘Normally I just sleep for two, three, four hours and then I start work. I just wanna make more money. There is no limit, we can get any amount in cash.’ He added of his terrified victims: ‘They’ll give you bags full of money.’
‘It’s a very big business,’ Jain added, laughing. Near the end of our demonstration, I asked him if he ever felt guilty about fleecing the elderly and vulnerable.
‘Why should I feel bad?’ he asked with a bemused smile. ‘Money is important to life.’
'I thought it really was the taxman - and lost £10,000': Father-of-three reveals how call centre scammers targeted him for his inheritance
Jonathan Fairy lost almost £10,000 which he had inherited from his father – after being repeatedly threatened by an HMRC scammer.
In a horrific coincidence, the married father of three from Tunbridge Wells was targeted at the exact time he was expecting a genuine call from the tax authority with details of money he needed to repay.
His wife Faye, a teacher at a further education college, said: ‘If it could happen to us, it could happen to anyone. We’re intelligent and we’re alert to potential scams, but this was so organised and sounded so official.’
The couple, both 44, also expressed anger at the British banks whose accounts were used to process the fraudulent payments. A week before being targeted, Mr Fairy had called HMRC to discuss money he needed to repay for child benefit, and was told he would receive a call or letter stating the final amount owed within a week.
The following week he received a call, claiming to be from HMRC – and appearing to be from a UK number – to discuss the money he owed.
‘These guys had more front than Blackpool Tower,’ he said. ‘They gave me a reference number straight away and told me I owed £4,892.75, which was just under the amount I’d been expecting so it seemed completely authentic.
‘They said, “If you don’t pay today you’ll have to pay over £20,000 for court fees and charges.”’
He was at work at the time, so asked them to call back later when he was at home. It was then that he was put through to a supervisor who gave him the name Mark Victor. Mr Fairy said: ‘They told me the call was being recorded and all the usual things. They sounded completely natural and genuine.’
To be certain, during the call he Googled the number and checked it matched the number on the HMRC website. He now believes the scammers were using a false phone number to make it appear they were legitimately from the tax authority.
During the hour-long phone call, he was given details of a nearby tax centre where he was told he would be required to have a meeting the next day to finalise repayment details.
Mr Fairy said the scammers ‘even gave me three possible time slots and asked me to choose which one I wanted, and gave me the name of an accountant who I would be meeting’. He added: ‘It was a very thorough operation.’
They gave him details of a NatWest account into which to make an immediate online payment, which he did.
He was told it would be held in the NatWest account before the payment was finalised. But soon afterwards, while driving to rugby training, he received another call saying the payment had not been processed due to a problem on their end. The caller apologised and said he needed to pay again or court proceedings would begin automatically.
As it was after 5pm, his original payment would be repaid into his account first thing the following morning, the caller insisted.
Later that evening, Mr Fairy transferred another £4,892.75 – taking the total he had paid up to £9,785.50. But when he checked his account the next day, the repayment was not there. He then called the number he had assumed was HMRC – only to find it was no longer working.
‘I had a gut feeling something was wrong. I called my wife and asked her to check out the tax office where I was due to be having the meeting,’ said Mr Fairy. Mrs Fairy went to check, and said: ‘As soon as I got there I realised the tax centre had closed down. It was an awful feeling. I walked straight into the police station to report the crime.
‘I’m angry at the scammers, but also very frustrated that they are able to use the accounts of high street banks like NatWest to carry out their fraud,’ she added.
To add insult to injury, Mr Fairy was still required to pay the money he owed to HMRC.
It took him nine calls to make that genuine payment – and he said he had previously been assured by HMRC that he was allowed to keep claiming the child benefit. Mrs Fairy said: ‘It’s frustrating. I feel if HMRC was more straightforward then it wouldn’t be possible for scammers to prey on people this way. Their convoluted system makes it possible for criminals to exploit it and trick people.’
A spokesman for Nationwide, who Mr Fairy banks with, said the payments were ‘not fraudulent’ as he had authorised them using his card reader.
NatWest said it had attempted to recover Mr Fairy’s money, but said the account held with their company was used as a transfer to move the stolen cash into a separate banking and payments provider called Contis.
Justin Skinner, marketing director of Contis, would not say where the money had gone next, but said he regretted the situation and empathised with Mr and Mrs Fairy. He also said Contis ‘monitors accounts closely for any fraudulent activity’.
An HMRC spokesman said it has ‘invested heavily’ in protecting taxpayers, and advised those who have lost money to these type of scammers to contact Action Fraud immediately.