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Authorities say debt-collector scam bilked millions

An international phone scam in which callers in India posed as debt collectors bilked millions of dollars out of more than 10,000 U.S. residents by using threats of arrest or even the loss of their jobs, U.S. authorities said Tuesday.

The callers, who apparently coordinated with someone in the U.S., drew on personal data snatched from payday loan websites, Federal Trade Commission official Steven Baker said. Over a two year period, at least 20 million calls may have been placed, with phony collectors typically demanding around $500 but sometimes asking for as much as $2,000.

The investigation of a scam with so many millions of calls flooding in from India was a first of its kind, the FTC's Midwest director said. But Baker added that other similar scams are almost certainly up and running.

"We think this is just the tip of the iceberg," he said.

JanLaree Dejulius, an administrative assistant from Las Vegas, said she agreed to transfer $763 after receiving a call in April 2010 from someone who knew details about her family and that one relative had taken a payday loan. She said she sent the money after the caller claimed he was himself a government official and that someone would come to arrest her at her workplace if she didn't pay up.

"I consider myself savvy, but I fell for it," the 57-year-old said at a news conference in Chicago. "I was intimidated enough not to want to get arrested."

The schemers zeroed in on individuals who they must have understood weren't rich, she said.

"In a nice word: They are scum," she said. "They go after the most vulnerable."

Some victims were so intimidated by the callers -- some of whom claimed they were agents of the nonexistent Federal Department of Crime and Prevention -- they agreed to pay even though they knew that neither they nor any acquaintances had payday debts, said Baker.

From 2010 to 2012, $5 million was paid in 17,000 transactions to accounts controlled by the alleged fraudsters, Baker said.

Baker said the investigation was complex and many questions were still unanswered, including how callers obtained such a vast amount of payday-loan information. He said the FTC tried but failed to coordinate the investigation with Indian authorities.

Many victims reported the callers had pronounced Indian accents, but others, like Dejulius, say their callers did not have accents. Baker said it is thought, however, that all the bogus debt calls were made from an unknown location in India.

No criminal charges have been filed. But the FTC charged Villa Park, Calif.-based American Credit Crunchers LLC, Ebeeze, LLC and their owner, Varang K. Thaker, with violating the FTC Act and the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act in connection to the alleged scheme.

Thaker allegedly withdrew thousands of dollars paid by victims that ended up in his company accounts, though Baker said it wasn't clear if the overall scheme was directed primarily from California or India.

American Credit Crunchers or Ebeeze in Villa Park, Calif., did not have a current phone listing. There also was no listing for a Varang K. Thaker in the area.

Thaker hasn't responded to the allegations but would have a chance at a federal court hearing set for next week, Baker said.

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