He pointed to my voice recorder on the table and asked meekly, “Is that necessary?”
When his scam calls were already on YouTube, how was it important that I recorded our conversation?
“It just makes me nervous,” he said.
Shahbaz told me that his parents sent him to one of the better schools in town, but that he failed eighth grade and had to move to a neighborhood school. When his father lost his job, Shahbaz found work on a bicycle in the city, delivering medicines and other pharmaceutical products from a wholesaler to retail pharmacies. He made $ 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 as a cheater, although he didn’t immediately realize he was doing it. At first, the job appeared to be a legitimate telemarketer for technical support services. By 2015, in his third job at a call center in the heart of Calcutta, Shahbaz had learned how to get victims to fill out a Western Union transfer to process a refund for canceled tech support services. “You would expect a refund but would be charged instead,” he told me.
Shahbaz made a modest salary in those first few jobs – he told me that this first call center in Salt Lake was paying him less than $ 100 a month. His long walk every night was exhausting. In 2016 or 2017 he started working with a group of scammers in Garden Reach and earned some of the profits. There were at least five others who worked with him, he said. All were local residents, some more experienced than others. One employee in the call center was his wife’s brother.
He was cageed to name the others or describe the structure of the organization, but it was obvious that he was not responsible. He told me that a supervisor taught him how to intimidate victims by handling their bank balances. “We started doing this about a year ago,” he said, adding that her group was a little behind the curve when it came to applying the latest tricks in the trade. As those who are on the cutting edge of business come up with something new, the idea gradually spreads to other scammers.
It was hard to tell how much this group was stealing from victims each day, but Shahbaz confessed that he could cheat on a person or two every night and get between $ 200 and $ 300 per victim. He received about a quarter of the amount stolen. He told me that he and his staff would ask the victims to go to a store and buy gift cards while they were on the phone for the entire duration. Sometimes, he said, all that effort was ruined when suspicious sellers refused to sell gift cards to the victim. “It’s getting difficult 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 fraudsters, like practitioners in every field, have felt the pressure to develop new methods and scams to raise public awareness of their plans.
The more we talked, the more I realized that Shahbaz was a tiny figure in the gigantic criminal ecosystem that makes up the phone fraud industry, the equivalent of a pickpocket on a Kolkata bus who is unlucky enough to be caught red-handed will. He never thought of running his own call center, he told me, because it required knowledge of people who could provide leads – names and number of destinations to call – as well as others who could help recover stolen money through illegal channels to transport. “I have no such contacts,” he said. According to Shahbaz, there were many in Calcutta who performed operations significantly larger than the ones he was involved in. “I know people who used to have nothing but are now very rich,” he said. Shahbaz implied that his own illicit income was meager by comparison. He hadn’t bought a car or a house, but he did admit he could afford to vacation overseas with friends. On Facebook I saw a photo of him 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 reply directly, but said there were times when he let victims go after learning that they had difficulty paying bills or needed the money for medical expenses. But for most of the victims, his justification seemed to be that they could afford to part with the few hundred dollars he stole.