Capital Scams

Working for Delhi’s fraud call centres

A fraud call centre in north-west Delhi. The Delhi Police claims there are more than 10,000 such outfits in the city. ERIC FOR THE CARAVAN
01 October, 2013

CHERYL LISEE HAD FALLEN on difficult days. Her son was in hospital and though she was receiving some retirement benefits, the 64-year-old resident of the state of Georgia in the United States had been finding it difficult to meet her expenses. In her desperation, Lisee remembered a cold call she had received in the fourth week of August this year, offering her a federal government loan, and leaving her with a number to contact if she was interested. One day, towards the end of August, Lisee dialled the number that the caller had given her.

Lisee’s call did not go through to any US government agency. Instead, a phone rang half a world away, in an apartment in the crowded locality of Pitampura in north-west Delhi. A young man in his mid-30s from Manipur answered the call, and introduced himself as “Eric”. Speaking in a smooth, practised American twang, Eric assured Lisee that he would take her through the process of acquiring the loan. All she would have to do, he told her, is pay a processing fee of $250.

“Eric” is the fake name of an employee of a rogue call centre, one of thousands—as estimated by the Delhi Police—in the capital. These illegal outfits are spread across the city, operating out of one- or two-bedroom apartments in areas such as Vikaspuri, Pitampura, Noida, Dwarka, Janakpuri and Mahipalpur. Typically, each office comprises a few dozen “agents”, who call people in the US and UK and offer them loans, leaving them with a number to call back if they are interested. When the victim calls back, a supervisor, such as Eric, takes over to follow through with the swindle.

Eric instructed Lisee to go to the nearest outlet of the financial services company Western Union, and call him again when she had reached. When she did, he took precautions to ensure that the branch staff did not suspect anything was amiss. “People at the Western Union are now aware of the scams, so they are likely to caution their customers if transactions are made to India,” he said when I met him in Munirka in August. “Therefore, I asked Cheryl to get the form and step aside from the teller.” Lisee filled in the form, and submitted it at the counter along with the cash. Minutes later, Eric’s company was richer by $250.

Precise information about these scam companies is scarce. According to the Delhi Police, more than 10,000 such fake call centres are run out of the city. In early 2013, a report by UK’s Daily Mail stated that 60,000 Britons had been cheated out of £10 million by fake call centres in India. Delhi was revealed to be a hotbed of activity. According to the article: “At its height, more than 1,000 people a day who had legitimately sought unsecured loans with banks and finance companies were being ‘cold called’ from call centres in the Indian capital New Delhi—with 100 of them daily being duped into signing up and paying a ‘processing fee’ to secure non-existent cash.”

What has gone unreported so far is the fact that these operations are heavily reliant on educated youth, mostly tribal, from Manipur, as well as other north-eastern states. In about a dozen outfits whose employees I spoke to, approximately 90 percent of the workforce were people from Manipur. I asked Eric what was motivating young people from the state to join these centres. “What are we supposed to do back home?” he replied. “There aren’t any jobs.”

Government figures over the last decade indicate that Manipur has among the highest self-employment rates in the country, but that the state also has one of the highest proportion of job-seekers to the total population (based on the number of people registered for jobs with government agencies)—around 6.68 lakh people as of 2009, or somewhere in the region of 26 percent of the total population, where most states have figures of less than 10 percent. The distress caused to the unemployed by the shortage of jobs is exacerbated by the state’s brutal history of insurgency, and military and police deployment. The South Asia Terrorism Portal lists the number of insurgent outfits in Manipur at 40. The military and police presence in the state acts as a crushing counter to this activity—according to Human Rights Watch, there are 14,000 police and at least 50,000 soldiers and paramilitary personnel in Manipur. The HRW report states: “According to Manipuri activists, the extent of militarization is such that it is estimated that there is one member of the security forces for every 20 Manipuris.” Many present-day insurgent groups have turned to activities like extortion. It is no surprise, then, that young people from the state look for work elsewhere.

On paper, these young job-seekers are highly literate—the 2011 census pegged Manipur’s literacy at 79.21 percent, ahead of the national average of 74.04 percent. But those I spoke to said that the quality of education left a lot to be desired. “Schools back home are English-medium, no doubt,” said Andrew, an agent at another rogue centre. “But there is something wrong with the system and pedagogy, which is why they continue to churn out half-baked, unemployable minds, who are only fit to be absorbed in fake BPOs and such.”

Isaac, another rogue centre agent, explained to me that he first approached several genuine call centres for work. Each one rejected him because of what they described as the high “MTI”, or mother-tongue influence, in his spoken English. “I was really excited and desperate to get a job and get on with my career, but apparently I don’t speak good enough English,” he said.

Rogue call centres, on the other hand, are relatively easy to join. Interviews last only minutes, after which selected candidates are led to their workstations. They are not required to produce CVs or other documents. Once employed, there are no competitive sales targets to achieve.

At the same time, there is also no job security: many employees I met spoke of rackets that were wound up overnight, leaving employees unpaid. “Even if we were to register a police complaint, the fact that the company was illegal will surely work against us,” Eric said. But for all of them, the insecurity of these jobs in Delhi is better than the life of outright poverty and unemployment back in their home states. Joshua, another call centre employee, argued that these call centres acted as “cushions” for youth from Manipur, providing them with some kind of protection against abject unemployment. “At least this is giving me a salary to support my family,” he said. “Why should I care if it is rogue or not as long as it keeps me alive?”

Andrew lives with his wife and one-and-a-half-year-old daughter in a one-room apartment in Munirka. While we spoke, his daughter kept him occupied, running around the small room and playing. “Look at her,” he said. “She is growing up so fast and there is hardly any open space, like a park, where she can play.” Andrew said he wanted to move to a better neighbourhood for his daughter’s sake, and he would do “anything, almost anything” to make that happen. For now, that entails working in one of Delhi’s rogue call centres. “The government must take the blame for any illegality in the society,” he said, “because the fact of the matter is that it has simply failed its citizens.”

This simmering resentment perhaps explains why people like Eric are comfortable with the idea of swindling people out of their money—in the case of Cheryl Lisee, twice over. “A few days after the first pitch, Cheryl called back upset, from what I could gather from her voice,” Eric said. But this did not worry him—on the contrary, he seized the chance to prolong the scam, by convincing Lisee that there had been a procedural mixup which led to a delay. He then offered her a higher loan on the condition that she deposit a fee, this time of $400. Still desperate for funds, Lisee acquiesced.

Lisee called back again a few days later. With almost unbelievable audacity, Eric tried to extend the scam even further. “It’s a bit funny to say this way,” he said, “but I again offered her higher loan money.” He told her that the Internal Revenue Service had withheld her loan, and that to clear it, she would have to pay a few hundred dollars more. “By this time she was pretty clear that she was being taken for a ride and therefore declined the offer,” he said. “She said she was going to lawyer up before she gets back to me and hung up. She never called back.” Over three calls, Eric had cheated Lisee of $650.

I asked Eric if he felt any remorse for his actions. “In the initial days I used to feel bad for the people from whom we embezzle money,” he said. “But as I went on, I realised that such feelings will only lead to displacement and unemployment. There is nothing personal about what we do. We don’t even know them. To be alive we have to work. It doesn’t matter to me anymore what my action does to others.”