“VICTIM #1” in numerous public federal court records is a retired Chesterfield County, Virginia, woman in her late 60s who cares for her adult son in a house in need of repairs she can no longer afford.
Two years ago, she returned an urgent automated call from the Social Security Administration and was connected to a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent who had alarming news: Her bank records were found inside a vehicle in Brownsville, Texas, along with a load of cocaine.
She was in serious trouble, he warned.
In fact, there was no car near the Mexican border, no bank records and no DEA agent. The Social Security Administration number that appeared on her cellphone when it rang with the recorded call had been spoofed.
But she really was in serious trouble.
That call, on May 2, 2019, was the first of many she received over the next few hellish weeks as she was swindled out of most of her nearly $445,000 in savings, much of it mailed in cash bundles to crooks.
“I’m down to peanuts,” said the victim, reached by telephone last week. She asked to be identified in this story as “June.”
For June, the emotional impact has been as serious as the financial one. “I can’t tell you how deeply ashamed I feel because I’m a smart person,” June said, “but smart people supposedly don’t let this happen to themselves.”
“I worry about the future because what’s going to happen ... after I die? Who is going to take care of my son? I don’t think he has the ability,” she said. “I have a house. I have other bills. I have utilities and stuff — how is he going to take care of that, plus, you know, the repairs and everything?”
Thousands of other people, many of them older and, like June, trying to do the right thing, were also duped. The victims haven't been publicly identified.
“These are sophisticated scammers who set up transnational fraud operations using methods that have been refined and perfected over time to prey on vulnerabilities and threaten victims into compliance,” said Raj Parekh, acting U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia.
“These schemes are unfortunately becoming more common and more difficult to detect, so we encourage victims to quickly come forward. The public’s awareness and diligence in reporting all suspicious phone call activity to law enforcement plays a critical role in helping us bring these callous criminals to justice,” he said.
Parekh said that if an unknown person asks you for money or your personal information through an unsolicited phone call, it is almost certainly a scam and you should hang up immediately.
Authorities said the fraudsters who victimized June were so skilled at posing as U.S. government agents and officials that when some of the victims were approached by real FBI agents, it was difficult to convince the victims that the agents were legitimate.
The gang’s leader, Shehzadkhan Pathan, 40, pleaded guilty in January to conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud and aggravated identity theft. He faces up to 22 years in prison when sentenced July 1 by U.S. District Judge Henry E. Hudson.
In a sentencing memorandum Friday, the U.S. attorney’s office wrote: “For several years under the leadership of Shehzadkhan Pathan, conspirators defrauded more than 4,000 victims of over $10 million dollars. Thousands of victims wired money in amounts ranging from $300 to $3,000. Those victims believed that they had been approved for personal loans and were making first payments or providing earnest money.
“Other victims were tricked or coerced into believing that there were outstanding warrants for their arrest, or that their Social Security benefits account had been emptied, or that they had substantial unpaid tax liabilities. More than 180 of those victims shipped parcels of cash to addresses they believed were associated with the U.S. government. Those cash shipments typically ranged in amount from $5,000 to more than $100,000. The total losses from these cash parcels exceeded $5 million. Not surprisingly, multiple of those victims suffered substantial financial hardship because of their victimization.”
Authorities had to delay Pathan’s sentencing earlier this year in part because “the large number of victims in this case has created a challenge for personnel entering contact information into the Victim Notification System.”
“Unlike certain fraud cases involving large classes of victims whose individual identities are not known and alternative methods of victim notification may be utilized,” prosecutors wrote, “investigators in this case have determined the names and contact information for approximately (4,000) victims.”
Pathan owned and operated a call center in his home city of Ahmedabad, India, from which automated robocalls were made to the U.S.
In addition to supervising the call center, Pathan sometimes played the role of “closer,” posing as a government agent or official who persuaded and coerced victims to send money, authorities said. He also recruited, supervised and operated the network of “money mules” — people who retrieved the victims’ cash shipments and wire transfers using false identifications.
One other organizer and eight “money mules” are bring prosecuted in federal court in Richmond. All of the defendants are Indian nationals.
At least three “mules” — none of whom has any prior criminal record — have pleaded guilty and been sentenced. Most recently, Jayeshkumar Deliwala, 48, received a prison term of five years and three months.
According to court documents, the recorded robocalls created a sense of urgency, telling victims that they had a serious legal — often criminal — problem and that if they did not immediately comply with the demands, there would be drastic consequences.
When the victims responded, they would be transferred to a “closer” who used multiple scripts to scam them — including impersonating officials with the FBI, the DEA, the Social Security Administration and the IRS. The closers convinced the victims to wire money and send parcels containing bulk cash to addresses and recipients involved in the conspiracy.
Many victims were threatened with severe legal and financial consequences — such as arrest or losing government benefits — unless they cooperated. Most of the victims were older than 60.
One mule who has pleaded guilty, Pradipsinh Parmar, 41, admitted that from March 2017 to April 2019, he traveled to 30 states and collected at least 4,358 wire transfers sent by victims via Western Union, MoneyGram and Walmart2Walmart, with losses totaling at least $4,312,585.
Parmar also received or attempted to receive at least 91 packages of cash sent by victims from several states via FedEx, UPS or USPS, totaling at least $1,593,591. Pathan sent Parmar at least 549 counterfeit identification documents to use in retrieving these packages and wires sent by victims.
June was at home when the scammers’ robocall lit up her cellphone, saying it was the Social Security Administration.
“I should have known better ... everybody has down days,” she said.
She called back because they had her full Social Security number, which she was told had been compromised. June said had they not had her full number, she would not have engaged with them.
When she called back, she spoke with two people for a few seconds and was transferred to the phony DEA agent. He gave her his name and his DEA badge number. He said there had been an accident and that her bank records had been found in a car along with cocaine near the Mexican border.
June said a bank had previously lost some of her financial records when she was having them transferred. “That’s why it was plausible that this could happen. ... That’s how I fell for it,” she said.
Authorities said June was told to surrender half of the cash in her bank accounts as a show of good faith while the DEA conducted a thorough investigation. Once cleared of any misconduct, the money would be returned, she was promised.
“They threatened me with arrest,” she recalled. “That’s how it started. They would keep me on the phone for hours on end. I literally drove all over Chesterfield and Henrico County from bank branch to bank branch to withdraw the money.”
As she withdrew the money, she said, “they would have me on speakerphone. My phone calls would be recorded, and they would listen to me when the money was withdrawn.”
Records show that from May 2 to May 21 in 2019, she withdrew $238,400 in cash from her accounts. She sent the cash, as instructed by the fake agents, in eight FedEx packages to addresses in California and New Jersey.
“They would tell me how to wrap it, and they would make me take pictures of the cash and send it to them by phone,” she said.
Branches of her bank were alerted to the growing number of withdrawals. She was escorted out of a branch by the manager because she had taken so much money out of her account.
Other losses followed, including $23,000 in gift cards she purchased in accordance with the instructions of the phony DEA agents.
“I kept track of everything,” said June, adding that the FBI told her that the notes she took about her dealings with the scammers were among the best of all the victims.
In May 2019, a victim in Northern Virginia, who sent $120,000 in cash to an address in New Jersey, figured out that he had been tricked and called the FBI.
Court documents show that when scammers told that victim to send an additional $40,000, FBI agents arranged for the delivery of the parcel.
It was that “controlled delivery” that resulted in what court documents said was “the identification of multiple leads, witnesses and persons of interest. Among the evidence generated following that controlled delivery was the identification of a Chesterfield County resident (VICTIM #1).”
Early one morning in June 2019, two FBI agents arrived at June’s house.
“I had somebody knocking at my kitchen door ... and I looked out and I had two men at the door and they presented their FBI badges. They showed me their badges. They showed me their special ID cards. And they showed me their guns,” she said.
She added: “We stood there talking because these guys were so good and kind. I was in a state of numbness was the best way I could put it.
“While the FBI agents were standing outside, I called the crooks to let them know. I can’t remember what they said. They said, ‘The FBI?’ And I can’t remember the rest of the conversation. It was a short call, and then we hung up.’”
When the agents returned a few days later, she was persuaded that they were legitimate.
“It has affected my mental health. I’ve gone up and down and all around,” June said. “I was on the phone with these people six days a week. I was not sleeping normally anymore.”
“I was waking up four to six times a night, so I never slept the whole night through. On top of this, because this was a scam, my number was out there on the dark web.”
Hundreds and hundreds of other scam calls began coming in on her cellphone each week. She had to change her phone number three times in nine months.
She has also dealt with a great deal of anger. “I can’t tell you how deep my hatred runs for these guys,” she said.
June said she does not lean on her family for comfort. She said her parents are dead. She has a brother and a sister, but she has not told them what happened. June said she “does not want to hear lectures: ‘How could you do that, how could you let yourself fall for that? You’re better than that.’ ”
“I don’t want to hear it,” she said.
She also lost a friend she told about the phone calls two years ago. That friend said she was afraid and told June not to contact her until it was over. June has since reached out to her friend, but she has not responded.
In all, June said she lost 95% of her savings.
Her son receives disability payments. “I’m drawing Social Security now and thank God I am, but it’s not enough,” she said. “My son has to help me pay all the bills.”
“I’ve had such an education the last two years,” she said, “a lot of it I could do without.”