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Who’s Making All Those Scam Calls?

Pointing to my voice recorder on the table, he asked, meekly, “Is this necessary?”

When his scam calls were already on YouTube, I countered, how did it matter that I was recording our conversation?

“It just makes me nervous,” he said.

Shahbaz told me his parents sent him to one of the city’s better schools but that he flunked out in eighth grade and had to move to a neighborhood school. When his father lost his job, Shahbaz found work riding around town on his bicycle to deliver medicines and other pharmaceutical supplies from a wholesaler to retail pharmacies; he earned $25 a month. Sometime around 2011 or 2012, he told me, a friend took him to a call center in Salt Lake, where he got his first job in scamming, though he didn’t realize right away that that was what he was doing. At first, he said, the job seemed like legitimate telemarketing for tech-support services. By 2015, working in his third job, at a call center in the heart of Kolkata, Shahbaz had learned how to coax victims into filling out a Western Union transfer in order to process a refund for terminated tech-support services. “They would expect a refund but instead get charged,” he told me.

Shahbaz earned a modest salary in these first few jobs — he told me that that first call center, in Salt Lake, paid him less than $100 a month. His lengthy commute every night was exhausting. In 2016 or 2017, he began working with a group of scammers in Garden Reach, earning a share of the profits. There were at least five others who worked with him, he said. All of them were local residents, some more experienced than others. One associate at the call center was his wife’s brother.

He was cagey about naming the others or describing the organization’s structure, but it was evident that he wasn’t in charge. He told me that a supervisor had taught him how to intimidate victims by editing their bank balances. “We started doing that about a year ago,” he said, adding that their group was somewhat behind the curve when it came to adopting the latest tricks of the trade. When those on the cutting edge of the business develop something new, he said, the idea gradually spreads to other scammers.

It was hard to ascertain how much this group was stealing from victims every day, but Shahbaz confessed that he was able to defraud one or two people every night, extracting anywhere from $200 to $300 per victim. He was paid about a quarter of the stolen amount. He told me that he and his associates would ask victims to drive to a store and buy gift cards, while staying on the phone for the entire duration. Sometimes, he said, all that effort was ruined if suspicious store clerks declined to sell gift cards to the victim. “It’s becoming tough these days, because customers aren’t as gullible as they used to be,” he told me. I could see from his point of view why scammers, like practitioners in any field, felt pressure to come up with new methods and scams in response to increasing public awareness of their schemes.

The more we spoke, the more I recognized that Shahbaz was a small figure in this gigantic criminal ecosystem that constitutes the phone-scam industry, the equivalent of a pickpocket on a Kolkata bus who is unlucky enough to get caught in the act. He had never thought of running his own call center, he told me, because that required knowing people who could provide leads — names and numbers of targets to call — as well as others who could help move stolen money through illicit channels. “I don’t have such contacts,” he said. There were many in Kolkata, according to Shahbaz, who ran operations significantly bigger than the one he was a part of. “I know of people who had nothing earlier but are now very rich,” he said. Shahbaz implied that his own ill-gotten earnings were paltry in comparison. He hadn’t bought a car or a house, but he admitted that he had been able to afford to go on overseas vacations with friends. On Facebook, I saw a photo of him posing in front of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai and other pictures from a visit to Thailand.

I asked if he ever felt guilty. He didn’t answer directly but said there had been times when he had let victims go after learning that they were struggling to pay bills or needed the money for medical expenses. But for most victims, his rationale seemed to be that they could afford to part with the few hundred dollars he was stealing.

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