Pennsylvania man gets 14-1/2 years in prison for India-based phone scam

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A Pennsylvania man who helped coordinate a fraud in which India-based callers preyed on financially vulnerable Americans by pretending to be U.S. government agents was sentenced to 14-1/2 years in prison on Wednesday.

employees at a call centre provide service support to international customers, in Bangalore March 17, 2004. REUTERS/Sherwin Crasto/Files

Sahil Patel, 36, pleaded guilty in January to four charges, including conspiring to commit wire fraud and to impersonate government officials.

Patel tearfully apologized for his role in the scam, telling U.S. District Judge Alvin Hellerstein in New York that he had learned his lesson.

But Hellerstein said that people with little money were swindled out of significant funds, adding that Patel deserved a harsh sentence to deter others from committing similar crimes. He was also ordered to forfeit $1 million.

The scheme involved “call centers” in India, where Patel’s co-conspirators would phone hundreds of U.S. citizens pretending to be law enforcement officers or tax agents and threaten arrest or fines unless the victims sent payments.

The call centers employed computer software that made it appear as though the calls were coming from legitimate numbers, sometimes using the actual phone number for law enforcement agencies. In one instance, a caller used the name of an actual FBI agent.

“It’s perfectly designed to exploit the fearful, the financially stressed, the vulnerable,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew Adams told Hellerstein.

Patel was accused of obtaining “lead sheets” of potential victims and providing them to the call centers in India. He also used unwitting accomplices to apply for debit cards that were then used to collect payments from victims, prosecutors said.

Patel laundered more than $1 million through the debit cards, prosecutors said.

While the office of Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara called Patel a “ringleader” of the scheme, Patel’s lawyer B. Alan Seidler told Hellerstein that the government had exaggerated his role.

He said Patel only collected only a 7 percent commission for his work and sent the rest to India. Seidler also said Patel began working as part of the fraud ring in order to feed a cocaine habit.

A U.S. Treasury official testified in a Senate hearing earlier this year that scams similar to Patel’s generated between 9,000 and 12,000 complaints a week and had cheated more than $15.5 million from 3,000 victims.

Reporting by Joseph Ax, editing by G Crosse