Maaz Ahmed Shamsi and Zeeshan Khan appeared to be no different from any of the hundreds of other international students who typically arrive in Center County, Pa., each fall on visas enabling them to study or obtain on-the-job training in the USA.
They were staying in a small apartment in Boalsburg, less than 10 minutes away from the flagship campus of Pennsylvania State University. They hang out amongst the students at State College.
But while most get by on financial assistance, work-study jobs, and student loans, Shamsi, 23, and Khan, 22, regularly had thousands of dollars flowing through their bank accounts — all now believed to be proceeds from a multinational robocall scam industry that annually swindles over $150 million from Americans.
According to New Jersey federal prosecutors, the pair were part of a college-age “money mules” ring, both recruited from the same campus in eastern India — the Kolkata International Institute of Hotel Management — and sent directly to the U.S. to collect the proceeds of this transnational scam.
Once here, Shamsi and Khan allegedly opened a dozen bank accounts in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York, watching the money roll in from scam victims, mainly elderly people, who had been told by Indian call centers to wire money their way. Prosecutors say the pair allegedly sent the ill-gotten profits to South Korean, Chinese, and Hong Kong accounts, sometimes before suspicious banks could avoid the transfer.
The men reportedly swindled over $618,000 from 19 U.S. casualties between January and May alone.
Since January, at least half a dozen others connected to the school of hotel management have been arrested on similar charges in New Jersey, Texas and Colorado.
All arrived in the U.S. initially as part of a work-study program that offered international students the chance to be interns at topflight American resorts.
“I really can’t stress enough the level of sophistication of the scheme we’re dealing with, which has now spanned the entire country,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Meriah H. Russell said in an April hearing in Trenton for another defendant caught in the dragnet. “We’re talking millions of dollars. We’re talking about money laundering. … It’s massive. It’s complicated. They’re sophisticated.”
According to third-party call blocking software company YouMail, the details of the scam will sound familiar to countless Americans, who are bombarded with nearly 26 billion such calls a year.
An allegedly recorded message from the FBI, the IRS, or the Social Security warns the beneficiaries they face imminent detention, fines, expulsion, or loss of government benefits, and advises them to call a specified number immediately.
The call back is then redirected to a call center where “dialers” with American-sounding names and accents are promised to resolve the issue for an immediate payout, sometimes owing a fraction of the amount they claim.
The overwhelming majority of targets, the Federal Trade Commission reports, identify the calls as fake and hang up. But with billions of these calls per year, even a tiny success rate generates millions of money.
According to the FTC, the Americans lost more than $128 million in 2019 alone to “official impostor frauds.” And eastern India has become the industry’s epicenter, home to hundreds of call centers, packed with professionally dressed employees sitting in cubicles and handling thousands of calls from American brands daily.
The Justice Department has sought to clamp down, filing litigation in January against two American telecom companies responsible for routing the robocalls through the U.S. telecommunications network, and extraditing the director of an Indian call center network from Singapore to face charges in a first-of-its-kind trial.
But the claims of a network of students recruited from one particular school to manipulate the U.S. visa program seem to be a new evolution.
The lawsuit against Shamsi and Khan cites one man from Los Angeles who was allegedly abused in the same scheme many times. He got a robocall from Norton Antivirus for the first time, warning him he was entitled to a $400 rebate.
Having been convinced to allow remote access to his computer to process the transaction, the caller on the other end of the line unexpectedly insisted that he had inadvertently overpaid the man and requested that the victim refund the money with a $4,000 Google gift card.
The alleged victim saw an overpayment in his account, but it was his own money, allegedly transferred from another of his accounts, which was accessed via his computer by the perpetrators. He sent out the $4,000, not realizing that.
And, days later, the call center called him to inform him that the man he had previously talked to had been fired for theft, and he was owed a refund on the $4,000 he had been swindled into sending.
He fell victim again, this time cabled more than $14,000 into Khan’s account.
Authorities have said nothing about how they recruited Shamsi and Khan for the racket, or how they came to be in State College and later New Jersey, where they lived when they were arrested the last month.
“They’re all pawns in all of this to some degree,” said Shamsi’s lawyer, Martin Issenberg, suggesting his client may not have been a voluntary participant. “It was an opportunity for them to spend some time in the United States. I’m not sure they came here for the purpose of conducting themselves in the way that they did.”
Khan ‘s attorney did not answer calls for comment.
Like most other Indian students, Shamsi and Khan arrived by participating in the Worldwide International Student Exchange Foundation, a organization based in Tennessee that aims to position thousands of foreign students at universities and workplaces around the country each year. Prosecutors have not suggested there was any knowledge of the fraud on the base.
According to court filings, federal authorities were notified by Omni Orlando Resort in Florida after one student intern put there, citing hearing reports that several of his colleagues from the International Institute of Hotel Management in Kolkata had been hired to engage in the fraud scheme before they arrived.
By that time a lot had spread throughout the world.
Prosecutors have not explicitly mentioned where Shamsi and Khan served in the exchange system. But when they applied for Social Security numbers soon after arriving in November 2019 they listed their home address as the Toftrees Country Club in State College.
Court records indicate another suspected “money mule” who was arrested last year in Monroe Township, N.J., told police that a man who paid for his flight to Tampa, Fla., had hired him in India and then ordered him to drive to New Jersey. There, he was allegedly supplied with 30 fake IDs and paid $300 for each shipment he picked up loaded with cash sent from victims across Middlesex County from UPS and FedEx locations.
He has since been linked by Homeland Security Investigations agents to donations of over $300,000 from over 70 U.S. victims. His lawyer declined to comment. Shamsi and Khan reportedly netted this total more than doubled.
They now face arrest and prison time and possible expulsion if convicted.