‘Do you see a Windows key on the bottom-left of your keyboard?’ a deep male voice asked me on the phone. I said yes. Over the next two minutes, the man instructed me to enter a series of commands, until my computer’s home screen erupted into a cascade of warnings and errors.
Fortunately, this was a secure demonstration, and my computer was at no real risk. I had challenged Shantanu Banerjee to conjure up warning signs of viruses on my perfectly healthy computer. He was more than happy to oblige. Until 2015, making up computer viruses out of thin air is what Banerjee, a 25-year-old from Kolkata, did for a living. ‘See what I did there? There is no problem on your computer. Your computer is fit and fine. But my job is to convince you that it has many problems.’
In January 2014, Banerjee started his career as a tech support scammer in one of Kolkata’s ‘hundreds of outfits.’ He would still be cheating victims across the UK out of thousands of pounds to this day, if his company hadn’t withheld his month’s salary of £290. Unlike most of his colleagues, who simply left the company when that happened, Banerjee kept demanding his pending wages. That’s when the truly immoral nature of his criminal employers was revealed.
On 3 December 2014, he posted a message on Facebook: ‘I protest [about my salary], but they keep me [hostage] whole night and beat me. Police also not help me, so I am very alone…please help me.’ Once a scammer himself, now seeking help against criminals, Banerjee posted the name and address of the company that he had worked for.
This April, when I reached out to him after reading the post, Banerjee was so disillusioned with his former career that he offered to send me ‘a list of every company in Kolkata who is running a tech support scam.’
India has made a name for itself as the home of the tech support scam. Over two-thirds of Microsoft’s customers in the UK have encountered such scams, according to a 2016 Microsoft report. A 2016 study by New York’s Stony Brook University found that 86% of all tech scams worldwide originated in India. According to Microsoft research, the average loss suffered by victims is £600. Older consumers tend to be at greater risk of falling for the scam – the average age of victims is 62.
In 2012, the US Federal Trade Commission shut down six Indian tech support companies which had conned people across the US, UK, Australia and Canada, raking in millions of pounds since 2008. Half of them had been operating from Banerjee’s own city of Kolkata. Banerjee was far from alone in wanting to denounce his former employers. Since February 2017, when I began researching such scams for The Hindustan Times, dozens of current and former scammers across India have revealed the names and details of their companies to me. ‘These days, in Dehradun, there are many tech support scams going on. I know all the places in Dehradun,’ one such whistleblower told me. ‘I’ve worked for Live Technician in Jaipur, and the same company operates from Noida, Mohali and Dehradun,’ emailed another. ‘Everywhere I went, I found these types companies, from Gurgaon to Noida and Delhi,’ one contact – who’d spent years in the industry – told me. ‘Every second company in Noida is running a tech support scam,’ confirmed another former call centre worker.
Tech Support Scam Agents
Who are the scam callers? India’s tech support scammers are drawn from its vast pool of English-speaking and computer-savvy youth. Lacking conventional employment, they find themselves plying this dubious trade. The numbers are compelling. Of India’s population of 1.3bn, a third are aged 35 or below. The economy may be growing at 7% a year, but jobs can still be scarce. A million Indians enter the job market every month, but only a tiny fraction find formal employment. That’s why many get sucked into India’s ever-expanding economy of fraud. Huge amounts of money are assured, but the true working conditions prove to be far from rosy.
Every tech support scammer I spoke to had followed a similar pattern. Fresh out of college, they placed their CVs on popular job websites and were contacted by ‘placement agents’ who directed them, for a commission, to obscure technology companies conducting murky business.
Lure of the money
The promise of lucrative incentives tempted many of the people we spoke to. The job-seekers were immediately hired at a respectable entry-level of salary of £250-£350 per month. Some cited commissions of Rs 1,000 (£12) for every £1,000 they earned their company.
‘A genuine job won’t even pay you a monthly salary of Rs 10,000 (£116), said Gaurav Dalmiya, who worked at Live Technician in Noida, a suburb of Delhi. ‘Freshers are hired immediately, if they speak good English. They soon become addicted to easy money,’ said Sanjit Sohni, who also worked at Live Technician, but in the north Indian city of Jaipur.
Only on their first day of training would they learn that their job was to scare foreign computer owners into buying worthless security services. At their training, new recruits are brought up to speed quickly on how to pull off the scam. They are handed a script and made to listen to recorded calls, to help understand the accents of potential victims. ‘In 10 days, I learned everything. Then, for the next 10 days, I rehearsed the script with my more experienced colleagues,’ said Dalmiya. He estimates at least 50 tech support scam centres to be running in Noida’s corporate network.
Tech Support Scam Victim
Some of the support scammers I spoke to told me that, initially, they’d worried no one would believe the lies they were expected to peddle to overseas victims. ‘If there is a problem in your computer, how would I know about it? Why am I calling you from Microsoft? Microsoft is a computer manufacturer, it doesn’t make calls to its customers about viruses,’ Shantanu Banerjee remembers, thinking back to his first day on the job. But their confidence in the method was revived every time a victim fell for it. ‘If it’s an older customer, then there’s a 90% chance of a sale. If it’s a UK customer, then 100%,’ said Dalmiya, who told me he had to scam at least 10 people a day to meet his $5,000 monthly target for the company. The closer they get to the psyche of their potential victims, the easier their job. Callers have to adapt to regional differences, too. ‘Unlike US customers, those in the UK don’t care for friendly small talk. All they want is for your English to be perfect. You show some respect, you tell them they need to upgrade their firewall, and they will say, “go for it”, and you are in,’ says Dalmiya. ‘UK customers are usually very rich. Old ladies start crying the moment you tell them that there’s a problem with their computer, so you have to proceed delicately,’ according to Aman Sivaram. ‘Most people who get pop-ups are doing something wrong – eg porn. So, we show the customer his browsing history, tell him that his computer is full of problems, and offer to clean it for $500,’ Sivaram says.
Once they know how to pull off the basic script, the scammers feel ready for all kinds of deception. ‘I used to tell people that their emails were hacked by someone in Russia,’ said Gaurav Dalmiya. Another former technician, Ramesh Pandey, told me he dealt with people needing help after forgetting their Facebook logins. ‘A representative [pretends] he is a Facebook expert and would help the customer, and, in order to do so, he would need to take remote access. Once he gets that, he goes ahead and runs a diagnosis.
Then, the scare tactics start. If the customer refuses to pay, even the FBI is mentioned.’ Big money at the top ‘They said they will kidnap me if I asked them for my salary.’
The support technicians make good money by Indian standards. But, it’s their bosses who are truly raking in the cash. The scammers I spoke to seemed staggered by the amount of money the call centres can make. Some scammers estimated the average monthly haul to be anywhere from £4,000 to £15,000. Others believed it was even more. ‘Just by conning gullible US or UK customers, the company averages $1,000-$1,200 on an OK day, and up to $20,000 on a good day,’ said Pandey.
At some point, though, they realise that no matter how well they know the tricks of the trade, they are unable to meet their company’s escalating sales targets. ‘They have a revenue expectation for every call, and each is reviewed against that expectation,’ says Aman Sivaram. The companies may pay Rs 300-400 (around £4) for every scare-mongering pop-up they place on websites, and they push staff hard to recover such costs. Bullying tactics against staff appear rife in the industry. Incentives are held up, salaries delayed, and punishments meted out – a trend I gathered from story after story that the scammers told me. ‘If you failed to achieve even a single sale, they would extend your shift by two hours. Total slavery. Or, they would make people stand up and raise their hands,’ one call handler told me. ‘They tell you that you can’t go home even after your shift if you haven’t made three sales of $99 each,’ said another. In a darker example, one source told me that, ‘They said they will kidnap me if I asked them for my [pending] salary.’
Luxury for the masterminds
The founders of these companies come across as elusive figures who cultivate an aura of grandeur among their staff. ‘These people have a lot of money, they have contacts in high places, and they have arrangements with the police,’ Shantanu Banerjee told me. Most office-level scammers never get to meet their ultimate bosses. But, they are in awe of the lifestyle the self-professed ‘entrepreneurs’ flash in their Facebook photographs: luxury cars, late-night parties, exotic holidays, beautiful women. Between begging for their own salaries and craving the good life seen in these photos, many scammers realise that, like their victims, they, too, have been fed lies.
Some leave the profession with regrets about their past actions, and the victims they left in their wake. ‘What we did was wrong, because the software we sold people is freely available on the internet from Microsoft and others,’ said Aman Sivaram, a former support caller. ‘I am still unemployed, but would rather remain this way than to barter my integrity,’ Ramesh Pandey told me.
Others show no such signs of remorse, and leave the companies to launch their own scam outfits. Anshul Garg tells me he slaved at several call centres before joining a group of disgruntled employees to start their own tech support scam. It doesn’t take much to run a tech support scam, after all: a few tech-savvy people, a rented room, some phones, computers with basic software, and an international bank account.
While these scams remain such a thriving industry in India, consumers in the UK will be at risk. It’s more important than ever to be vigilant to such threats. The names in this report have been changed to protect the identities of those who have helped with this investigation.
A number of sources told us that they had previously worked for a company called Live Technician. We asked Samay Vashisth, CEO of Live Technician, to explain the conduct of his business, in light of the allegations made by its former staff, and following our own calls to its agents. No reports of physical threats had been made to us by any former Live Technician staff, but Vashisth confirmed that many staff salaries had gone unpaid. Vashisth denied his company made fraud support calls. ‘We do genuine business where people search for problems and call us and we sell our packages to them,’ Vashisth told us. ‘Then, we provide genuine service year after year.’ Vashisth said the tech support side of his business had been largely closed down, and it no longer dealt with UK customers.
We explained that we had recently called Live Technician, posing as a UK customer, and had been pushed pricey four-year support. His biography on the company website sits below effusive descriptions of how it provides ‘world-class technical assistance to consumers’. ‘We have a quality control team and we don’t sell anything forcefully,’ he told us. ‘A few agents may do this to get higher incentives, but they get punished if we find anyone doing this.’