The Empire Calls Back

India’s phone scam industry targets the elderly to the tune of billions each year. Its secret weapon? The loss of communal public life and family support.

Illustration by Max Guther

The financial barrier to starting an Indian “call center” is not very high. For $15,000, an experienced franchiser can help you find a suitable floor in a black-glass office building, wire it with dozens of computer stations, and train a fleet of ambitious, English-speaking graduates to perform telecom fraud. You can usually recoup your investment within a month or two.

Revenues flow in dollars, payroll and other expenses in rupees. The local police will be a nuisance-level operating cost at worst, with the risk of arrest — never mind prosecution — vanishingly slight. Paranoia can be managed by remembering the name of Samarth Bansal, who penned an exhaustive Hindustan Times exposé of Delhi-area scam centers, only to receive a single text message in response: a thumbs-up emoji from a colleague.

More than a decade into India’s rise as a phone scam superpower, fraudulent call centers still thrive across the subcontinent. Scamming is now a mature industry whose growth, like food and alcohol delivery, exploded exponentially during the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2022, India-based scam syndicates defrauded Americans out of more than $10 billion. More than $3 billion of that was siphoned from the accounts of ninety thousand Americans aged sixty and older. This is a sixfold increase from the $500 million seniors lost to scammers in 2021, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Internet Crime Complaint Center — the fastest growth of any age group. But even these numbers may be lowball estimates. Authorities admit they’re scrambling just to keep up with the most elusive and fast-evolving adversary in international crime.

The pandemic-era explosion in telefraud led to the dawn of a new era of international cooperation between US and Indian law enforcement. In 2020, the FBI opened a permanent office inside the American embassy in New Delhi. This partnership was key to the neutralization, in June 2023, of a scam run out of the western Indian city of Ahmedabad. The arrest of its twenty-nine-year-old ringleader, Vatsal Mehta, and his top deputies was the culmination of a five-year joint operation of the FBI, US INTERPOL, and “special units” of the Indian national police.

For the better part of a decade, Mehta’s agents bilked American seniors for millions of dollars using robocalls that impersonated the voices of government officials. When victims returned the call at the number provided, operators informed them that their Social Security numbers had been involved in a serious crime. To avoid arrest, they would have to settle a fine immediately — payable by bank transfer, crypto, or credit card. If needed, Mehta’s US-based employees were dispatched to the victim’s home to collect cash or gift cards from a local Walgreens.

Mehta’s favorite script called for his agents to impersonate Uttam Dhillon, the acting administrator of the Drug Enforcement Agency. It’s a fair guess that the ramrod-straight career prosecutor took the use of his name personally. In a bureaucratic reshuffle that may have sealed Mehta’s fate, Dhillon was transferred across town to direct INTERPOL’s Washington bureau in the spring of 2021. At the time, the organization was still riding high on breaking up the syndicate believed to have pioneered the government-official impersonation scam. The previous December, a federal judge in Texas sentenced the forty-four-year-old Indian national Hitesh Madhubhai Patel to twenty years in prison, topped with a $9 million restitution order, on charges of identification fraud, wire fraud conspiracy, access device fraud, money laundering, and impersonating a federal officer. Twenty-four of Patel’s US-based agents and footmen received similar sentences in Texas, Arizona, and Georgia.

The Patel and Mehta busts proved that even the most sophisticated scam operators could be tracked, caught, and prosecuted. But neither came close to slaying the hydra that Indian telefraud has become. Law enforcement is outnumbered and outmatched, limited to symbolic shows of justice like the masked perp walks favored by Indian police. Confronted with this massive asymmetry, other federal agencies have been forced to step in. In April, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) launched Project Point of No Entry, which targets Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) service providers that enable cheap international robocalls over the internet. Working with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and state attorneys general, the FTC now has a team dedicated to sending cease and desist letters to US-based VoIP companies. But even on this front, the government is playing a dizzying game of digital Whac-A-Mole. Robocalls can simply be routed from other countries. Unchecked data harvesting has produced countless call lists that are sold by a proliferating number of legal data brokers and at least as many on the dark web.

The best defense against scammers may turn out to be the oldest: awareness and education. If so, the most important group in protecting the elderly isn’t the FBI, INTERPOL, or the FTC, but the American Association of Retired Persons.

When Ethel Percy Andrus founded the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) in 1958, the retired schoolteacher had elder fraud squarely in her sights. The scams of the last century may appear quaint today, but they aggravated the financial vulnerability of millions of American seniors. Their persistence outraged Andrus, a lifelong reformer who cut her teeth working with new immigrants at Jane Addams’s Hull House. Even in America’s new “age of affluence,” the timeless “medicine man” stalked the country unimpeded, with little regulation targeting advertisements for quack cure-alls that promised to eradicate the ills and pains of aging. Among AARP’s first legislative accomplishments was stronger Food and Drug Administration oversight of medicine sales and advertising.

Unlike medicine fraud, the origins of the second most common scam targeting seniors could be traced back to one of the American left’s greatest achievements: the passage of the Social Security Act of 1935. Early Social Security scams took on various forms, including a primitive version of today’s agency-official impersonation scam. But the dominant swindle was simple theft and forgery. By 1963, the year of Andrus’s star turn as lead witness during congressional hearings on “Frauds and Quackery Affecting the Older Citizen,” the Treasury Department estimated that one-third of the fifty thousand forged checks reported every year were Social Security benefit checks.

“Nothing could be more invidious than the pressures that plague older persons and further deplete their reduced incomes,” Andrus told the Senate Special Committee on Aging. She proposed a national education campaign led by AARP and a national service corps to “prevent or expose any practice or activity . . . contrary to the Nation’s concern for its elderly citizens.”

The national service corps never materialized, but AARP pushed forward in its mission. Sixty years later, scam awareness is central to the organization’s work. It operates the Fraud Watch Network, runs a toll-free scam helpline, and publishes running updates on how to identify the latest scams. But today these crimes are fundamentally different in kind and in scale than the ones Andrus crusaded against, having evolved into a full-fledged industry in ways we are just beginning to appreciate. As recently as 2017, David Graeber maintained in Bullshit Jobs that cons and scams should be considered “an act, not a profession,” because no one is paying scammers “wages or a salary.” This ignored the professionalization of scamming that occurred in India throughout the 2010s, where “call centers” competed for recruits by offering base salaries and juicy commissions, similar to any other sales job.

Another departure from the scams of the past is the sheer volume of funds being stolen, individually and in aggregate. In 2022, scammers targeting seniors absconded with an average of $35,000 per victim, according to the FBI. It’s an absolutely crushing amount, especially for seniors, more than 90 percent of whom rely on Social Security to supplement their savings — if they have any. The modern scam results in situations far worse than a lost Social Security check — it sends previously comfortable retirements into poverty overnight. Pricey cancer treatments can no longer be paid for. Caretakers are let go. Family homes are sold. Suicides are reported.

It is often assumed that seniors are targeted because they are easily confused or suffering some form of cognitive decline. But the research doesn’t support this. The most important risk indicators, according to the data, are social isolation and loneliness. When people are lonely and lacking daily human connections, they are more likely to stay on the phone and talk to strangers. Living alone also deprives people of second opinions. A University of Southern California study found that seniors with “loneliness and social dissatisfaction” reported greater “financial exploitation vulnerability.” The fact that these risk factors are steadily afflicting more and younger Americans is almost certainly driving growing scam numbers. One-quarter of Americans aged sixty-five or older meet the criteria for “chronic social isolation”; one-third of adults over the age of forty-five report feeling “loneliness.”

The connection between vulnerability and loneliness was a running feature of the 1963 hearings on fraud convened by the Senate Special Committee on Aging. In one of the sadder examples from the proceedings, a scam was detailed in which seniors were conned into paying in advance for dancing lessons that did not in fact exist. “In a desire for companionship and a possible substitution for the loneliness which frequently accompanies old age, these elder citizens are deluded into the belief that by taking dancing lessons and becoming a regular attendant of classes, they will be able to have an antidote for their cloistered existence,” noted Paul Rand Dixon, then chair of the FTC.

The salience of isolation is well understood by modern scammers, who are after far more than the price of dancing classes. The Indian journalist Snigdha Poonam heard as much during her own investigation. “America is full of old people who live alone,” said a young female scammer in the tech hub of Gurugram. “They have no one to turn to.”

The call center, like the telephone, is native to the United States. It took its modern form during the 1960s and enjoyed a golden age that lasted roughly three decades. Starting in the mid-1990s, American companies began sending customer support jobs abroad, a back-office corollary to the offshoring of factory jobs to Mexico and China. Call center offshoring accelerated with the post-9/11 economic downturn, as most major banks, airlines, and phone companies moved customer support desks to India, home to a labor surplus bursting with college graduates who had been studying English since the third grade. In rapidly growing hubs near Delhi, Kolkata, and Mumbai, young Indians earned a fraction of the starting salary commanded in the States. Tech companies, meanwhile, also turned their attention to the subcontinent, where they could now hire programming and technical support staff fluent in Java for a mere $5,000 a year — $60,000 less than a similarly trained American.

By the mid-aughts, 90 percent of major US firms no longer regarded outsourcing as a cost-saving measure but rather as a central component of their businesses. A new anglophone consulting industry emerged to assist American and British companies making the move. For every one thousand customer service jobs they sent to India, according to the International Association of Outsourcing Professionals, they could expect to save $20 million.

The boom times did not last long. A few years after arriving, many large US firms abandoned the newly built office towers of Kolkata and Gurugram for greener pastures further east. By 2011, the Philippines had joined India in the elite ranks of call center destinations; some four hundred thousand customer service workers were answering calls for Expedia, JPMorgan Chase, and AT&T in office parks outside Manila. Around the same time, other firms subcontracted their customer support operations to US prisons, lured by the siren song of UNICOR, a US government corporation, to imagine “all the benefits of domestic outsourcing at offshore prices.”

As India’s call center industry contracted, its software development and IT support industries were supercharged by the continued offshoring of a mushrooming US tech sector, a labor shift symbolized by Microsoft’s decision in 2010 to subcontract all of its help desk and application support services to the Bangalore-based Infosys Limited. However, in an echo of America’s own globalization-induced labor crises, Indians who worked in the old call center jobs were not necessarily qualified for the new IT jobs. What any young English-speaking Indian graduate could do, however, was pretend to work for the tech giants that arrived in India just as the banks and the airlines were leaving.

The number of calls from fraudulent staffers representing Microsoft, Apple, Norton, and Amazon grew steadily over the 2010s, dramatically spiking at the start of the pandemic. In 2022, tech support fraud was the most common scam across all age groups, with seniors disproportionately affected. And 95 percent of the calls came from India.

All the elements required for the emergence of the tech support scam — the backbone of the larger scam industry — were in place by the early 2010s: real estate, expertise in running call centers, heightened income expectations of young college-educated Indians, and experience in navigating the psychological terrain of American seniors struggling with social isolation and technology overload. That this experience was often hard-earned likely helped at least some former call center employees to rationalize their transition into professional scammers. Beginning in the late ’90s, conversations with Indian operators presented a convenient outlet for the rage and confusion of Americans impacted by accelerating globalization. A TIME story from 2007 described the torrents of abuse routinely absorbed by Indian operators, including the antics of a Philadelphia radio host who phoned India-based customer service reps for the sole purpose of calling them “dirty rat eaters” live on-air.

Deeper resentments may also hover over the Indian scam industry. One of its capitals, Kolkata, earlier served as the headquarters of another global scam that was larger, more vicious, and more lucrative by an order of magnitude: the East India Company. Beginning in the 1750s, the company, with the funds and blessings of the British crown, systematically siphoned the wealth of Bengal, and eventually the rest of the country, to create unprecedented fortunes for “a few traders, who have not yet learned to wash their bottoms,” in the words of an Indian contemporary. When reports of enforced mass starvation and violent plunder reached Europe, satirists mocked company directors as “Lord Vultures” — “a troop of desperate banditti . . . a scandalous confederacy to plunder and strip.”

Today a debate rages in India over the damage the scam industry is doing to the country’s name, with a misdirected aggrievement over India’s colonization visible at the margins. Beneath a Times of India report on call center scams, the top commentator urged “Indian cheats” to “focus their attention on the UK, as it is the UK that looted trillions of dollars from India. Even now they have set up tax havens and are giving refuge to all people who fled India with looted money.”

As with the outsourcing wave that preceded it, the Indian scam sector has now spawned secondary industries in its wake. Workers at internet security providers owe their jobs to the mass anxiety created by these scams, as do staffers at the ballooning anti-fraud divisions within tech giants and federal agencies.

But the most lucrative second-order profession is a new breed of YouTube celebrity who makes entertainment from online vigilante justice: the scambaiter. Usually sponsored by VPN providers and internet security companies, top scambaiters rack up hundreds of thousands and even millions of views. Voice altering programs allow them to impersonate confused old ladies, only to then turn the tables against unwitting scammers. Sometimes the purpose is to exasperate or interrogate; sometimes it’s to drain the scammers’ own accounts in sophisticated and ingenious acts of reverse fraud. If you can’t rid the world of scammers, you can at least drink their tears.

The breakout star of the bunch is the Los Angeles–based duo of Ashton Bingham and Art Kulik. Under the name Trilogy Media, Bingham and Kulik have perfected an aesthetic resembling the love child of MrBeast and the Jerky Boys. Last summer, they teamed up with fellow scambaiters Mark Rober and Jim Browning to organize the audacious infiltration of a sprawling Kolkata-based scam operation. Using Indian agents, the YouTube A-team unleashed cockroaches, timer-detonated stink bombs, and glitter grenades on the call center floor, disrupting its operation for days. Videos of the high jinks racked up hundreds of millions of views.

But as popular as the videos are, they rarely result in anything more than a brief nuisance. “We love to waste the scammers’ time,” said Bingham in a video Q&A with Wired. “The more time they’re on the phone with us, the less time they’re on the phone with your grandmother.” Even when the videos create enough heat to force raids by Indian police, the result is often a catch and release following a Mexican-style perp walk and pony show.

Jim Browning had bigger hopes when he started his scambaiting channel in 2013. Considered the “godfather” of scambaiting, Browning is the YouTube name of an Irish technologist who specializes in cracking into the closed-circuit television (CCTV) systems of call centers, then showing the feeds to the world. “I thought, if I keep recording like this, maybe the authorities can do something about it,” he says. “I was very wrong about that.” He describes India as a safe haven for a scam industry that has managed to stay one step ahead of the authorities, in a kind of Darwinian adaptation. With reduced expectations about the impacts, he now scambaits full-time, which he describes as the “art of taking scammers off their scripts and turning the tables.”

Whether the steady flow of intel and evidence gathered by the scambaiters — locations of scam centers, CCTV footage, names, and payroll info — is eventually taken up by law enforcement will depend on the future of US-Indian cooperation. The FBI office in the New Delhi embassy can only do so much on its own in a legal system that struggles with corruption. Calls for Indian authorities to devote more resources to the issue are growing, both from Washington and from influential voices within the US-based Indian diaspora. “We’ve tried to build a reputation for India in this country,” said journalist Yudhijit Bhattacharjee at the conclusion of his podcast series Scam Likely. “When I talk to Indian government officials, I keep repeating what a big mistake they’re making in not taking it seriously. It’s ultimately not only costing American victims billions of dollars but causing incalculable damage to the relationship between these two countries.”

One of Bhattacharjee’s sources, a Department of Homeland Security investigator, echoed his sentiments. The scam industry, he said, is “the largest cross-cultural communication ever to take place. They have made millions of calls from India. That is an amazing thing that people are receiving negatively. What does that do to future dialogue between Americans and Indians?”

A sharper version of this message has been delivered by Suhel Daud, the FBI’s chief for South Asia and the agency’s legal attaché at the Delhi embassy. Speaking to the Times of India, Daud said the country risks being labeled an “exporter” of fraud, a pointed echo of the Bush-era “war on terrorism” rhetoric that implies continued inaction is tantamount to “state-sponsored” belligerence. Whether this was just careless diplomatic phrasing or not, there are signs that Indian authorities have begun taking the scam industry more seriously. The government’s latest anti-fraud initiative is named Operation Chakra, as if nothing less than the soul or “real self” of India is hanging in the balance.

Scam culture is expanding in ways that only Philip K. Dick could have imagined when Ethel Percy Andrus first pleaded with Congress for federal resources back in 1963. Artificial intelligence (AI) will soon enable fraudsters to mimic the timbres and inflections of the voices of loved ones and federal officials, if not every other aspect of their likeness. Soon other AI-based scams will no doubt be widespread — call it “A Scammer Darkly” — as aging societies become more demographically top-heavy. By 2030, one in five Americans will be sixty-five or older; by 2060, it will be one in four, including a tripling of the current eighty-five-plus population.

What remains to be determined, however, are the underlying social conditions that this elderly population will inhabit. Countering the isolation and loneliness that haunt older people will require state interventions and programs, confronting the many scandals of eldercare — from hedge-fund-owned retirement home chains to endemic poverty — as well as reckoning with the deeper cultural issue of generational abandonment. This will mean fostering a revival of civil organizations and political engagement.

Not everybody can or wants to become a Gray Panther, but there are lessons worth exploring in the decline of unions and activism that has occurred alongside the steady rise of loneliness. There are also valuable lessons in the approach of Nordic welfare states that prioritize social care as much as health care, offering a state-sponsored version of the intergenerational support systems found in middle- and low-income countries. Along with education campaigns, we will have to rethink how older people can lead more fulfilling, socially connected lives.

If the last two decades have taught us anything, it is that we should not look to the internet to compensate for the loss of communal public life and family support. In a critical reappraisal of Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community published in these pages, Anton Jäger tracked how loneliness had worsened in the twenty years since the book’s publication in 2000, even as people of all ages spent growing portions of their waking lives on “social” platforms devoted to constant-contact communication. Contrary to the early promises of internet utopians, evidence shows that participating in online communities does not arrest social atomization but rather “accelerates and entrenches it.” The internet, wrote Jäger, “only becomes comprehensible in the world of the lonely bowler. Online culture thrives on the atomization that the neoliberal offensive has inflicted on society — there is now ample research showing positive correlation between declining civic commitment and broadband access.”

There is only the coldest of comforts in the fact that seniors will increasingly have less to steal than the current cohort of retired baby boomers. The United States already has the highest rate of elder poverty in the developed world, with one in three people aged sixty-five and older living under or near the poverty line. And as the country gets older, the average senior will also grow poorer. The five- and six-figure savings and pension payouts being lost to scammers in 2023 will become increasingly scarce.

In the absence of such major scores, the digital equivalent to the forged Social Security check may see a revival — a century of scamming come full circle.