Pointing at my recorder on the table, he meekly asked, “Is this necessary?”
Once his phishing calls were on YouTube, I countered, how is it important that I record our chats?
“It just worries me,” he said.
Shahbaz told me that his parents sent him to one of the better schools in the city but he dropped out in 8th grade and had to move to a school in the neighborhood. When his father lost his job, Shahbaz cycled around town to deliver medicine and other pharmaceutical supplies from a wholesaler to retail pharmacies; he earns 25 dollars a month. Around 2011 or 2012, he told me, a friend took him to a call center in Salt Lake where he took his first job as a scam, even though he didn’t accept it. Right out that’s what he’s doing. At first, he said, the job seemed like legitimate telemarketing for tech support services. By 2015, while doing his third job, at a tech support center in central Kolkata, Shahbaz learned how to lure victims into filling out a Western Union transfer to process reimbursements for support services. Technology aid has ended. “They will expect a refund but are charged instead,” he told me.
Shahbaz earned a modest salary on the first few jobs – he told me that the first call center, in Salt Lake, paid him less than $ 100 a month. His long nightly trip was tiring. In 2016 or 2017, he started working with a group of scammers at Garden Reach, earning a share of the profits. There were at least five other people who worked with him, he said. They are all local residents, some more experienced than others. An employee at the call center is his wife’s brother.
He was confusing about naming others or describing the structure of the organization, but it was clear that he was not in charge. He told me that a supervisor taught him how to intimidate the victim by correcting their bank balance. “We started doing that about a year ago,” he said, adding that their team has been behind the curve when it comes to adopting the latest trading tricks. As people in the business develop something new, he says, the idea slowly spreads to other scammers.
It’s hard to determine how much money this group steals from victims per day, but Shahbaz admits he can cheat one or two people per night, making between $ 200 and $ 300 per victim. He is paid about a quarter of the stolen money. He told me that he and his associates would ask the victim to drive to a store and buy a gift card, while staying on the phone the entire time. Sometimes all that effort, he said, would be ruined if the suspicious store employee refused to sell the gift card to the victim. “It’s getting tough these days, because the client is not as gullible as before,” he told me. I can see from his point of view why scammers, like practitioners in any field, feel pressured to come up with new and deceptive methods to raise public awareness. about their conspiracies.
The more I talk, the more I realize that Shahbaz is a tiny figure in the huge criminal ecosystem that makes up the telephone fraud industry, the equivalent of a pickpocket on a Kolkata bus, the unfortunate Luckily caught in the act. He’s never thought of running his own call center, he told me, because that requires knowing who can deliver leads – names and target numbers to call – as well as others can help to transfer stolen money over illegal channels. “I have no such connection,” he said. According to Shahbaz, there are a lot of people in Kolkata who run operations significantly larger than the agency he used to be in. “I know people who had nothing before but are now very rich,” he said. Shahbaz implied that his poor income was very small relative to him. He hasn’t bought a car or a house yet, but he admits that he can afford to go on vacation abroad with his friends. On Facebook I saw a photo of him posing in front of the Burj Khalifa building in Dubai and other photos of his visit to Thailand.
I asked him if he ever felt guilty. He did not respond directly but said there was a time when he let the victim go after learning they were struggling to pay bills or needing money for medical expenses. But to most of the victims, his reason seems to be that they can afford to part ways with the few hundred dollars he stole.