NEWARK – An Edison woman has pled guilty in her alleged role in connection with a decade long transnational technical support scam that generated $10 million in proceeds from at least more than 20,000 victims, many of whom were elderly, in the United States and Canada, according to U.S. Attorney Philip R. Sellinger for the District of New Jersey.
Meghna Kumar, 50, pled guilty on Dec. 14 by videoconference before Judge Michael Hammer in Newark federal court to an information charging her with engaging in monetary transactions in property derived from specified unlawful activity based on her role in the scheme, according to a press release through the United States Attorney District of New Jersey.
Kumar’s guilty plea along with the indictment of five men in the alleged scam was announced on Dec. 16.
Gagan Lamba, 41, and Harshad Madaan, 34, both of New Delhi, India; Jayant Bhatia, 33, of Ontario, Canada, and Vikash Gupta, 33, of Faridabad, India, are all charged by indictment with conspiracy to commit wire fraud, conspiracy to commit computer fraud, and substantive violations of wire fraud and computer fraud, according to the press release.
Lamba, Madaan, Bhatia, and a fifth defendant, Kulwinder Singh, 34, of Richmond Hill, N.Y., are also charged with conspiracy to commit money laundering, and engaging in monetary transactions in property derived from specified unlawful activity. Bhatia has been charged with offenses related to his participation in the high-tech fraud scheme, according to the press release.
Authorities in India apprehended Madaan on Dec. 14 and Gupta on Dec. 15 on local charges for their involvement in the tech support scheme. Lamba remains at large. Bhatia was apprehended by Canadian authorities pursuant to a provisional arrest request from the United States. Singh was apprehended at his home in New York, and he made his initial appearance on Dec. 14 before Hammer in Newark federal court and was released on a $100,000 unsecured bond, according to the press release.
According to documents filed in this case and statements made in court:
From 2012 through November 2022, the defendants and others were members of a criminal fraud ring that operated a technical support fraud scheme in the United States, India, and Canada. The scheme targeted victims across the United States and Canada, including New Jersey, many of whom were elderly.
The primary objective was to trick victims into believing that their personal computers were infected with a virus or malware and then convince the victims to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars to the fraud ring for phony computer repair services. Over the course of the conspiracy, the fraud ring generated more than $10 million in proceeds from at least 20,000 victims.
The fraud ring caused fraudulent pop-up windows to appear on victims’ personal computers. The pop-ups were designed, at times, to “freeze” the victims’ computers, which prevented the victims from using or accessing files on their computers. The pop-ups also claimed, falsely, that the victims’ computers were infected with a virus, or otherwise compromised, and directed the victims to call a telephone number to receive technical support. Sometimes the pop-ups warned victims to not shut down their computers. The pop-ups also included, without authorization, the names of well-known, legitimate technology and antivirus companies. In reality, the pop-ups were a hoax, designed to trick the victims into believing that their computers were infected with viruses that did not actually exist.
Victims who called the technical support phone numbers appearing on the pop-ups were connected to one or more call centers in India associated with the fraud ring. Fraud ring members at the call centers falsely repeated that the victims’ computers were infected with viruses and offered to fix the purported issue for a fee. The fraud ring members would then request permission to remotely access the victims’ computers. Once granted access, fraud ring members would, at times, download and run a freely available adblocker tool, advise the victim that the “issue” had been resolved, and then leave a text file on the desktop of the computer with payment instructions.
Victims were instructed to pay the fraud ring in amounts ranging from hundreds to thousands of dollars by: (a) electronically scanning checks made payable to one of several shell companies set up by the fraud ring and (b) sending, via FedEx, physical checks to addresses maintained by Singh and Kumar in New Jersey. The fraud ring often contacted certain victims again to offer additional services or lengthier service agreements that required victims to pay even more money to the fraud ring.
The wire fraud and computer fraud charges carry a maximum penalty of 20 years and a $250,000 fine, or twice the gross amount of gain or loss from the offense, whichever is greatest. The money laundering charges carry a statutory maximum of 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $500,000 or twice the value of the property involved, whichever is greater. The transacting in criminal proceeds charges carry a maximum of 10 years in prison and a fine of $250,000, or twice the value of the property involved in the transaction, whichever is greater, according to the press release.
“As alleged in the indictment, the defendants are charged with using access to personal computers to run a high-tech extortion scheme on a global scale,” Sellinger said. “They frequently preyed upon senior citizens and scared them into paying for unnecessary and useless computer repair services. Working with our partners here and abroad, we will remain vigilant in protecting our citizens from these kinds of schemes.”
Acting Inspector in Charge Raimundo Marrero of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service Newark Field Office and Philadelphia Division said “tech-support scams, and other consumer fraud schemes that frequently target elderly or vulnerable citizens are particularly egregious crimes.”
“Fraudsters, who often operate from outside the United States, may think they can anonymously infiltrate their victims’ homes and lives through the mail, telephone, or computer without any consequences. However, let today’s enforcement actions put scammers on notice. Through the investigative efforts of U.S. federal law enforcement, and our international partners, we will work together to pursue those individuals who scam, harass, and steal from our older and respected members of society,” he said.
FBI Special Agent in Charge James E. Dennehy said “scammers are changing tactics and finding new methods to steal hard-earned money from unsuspecting victims, but it boils down to the same well-worn crime.”
“This investigation highlights the FBI’s and our international partners’ work in searching out and bringing these fraudsters to justice. It also shows victims that regardless of where the criminals are sitting, here or in a foreign country, we will hold them accountable using every tool we have,” he said.
Sellinger thanked postal inspectors of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service in Newark, under the direction of Marrero, and special agents of the FBI, including the FBI’s Cyber Crimes Task Force, under the direction of Dennehy in Newark, with the investigation. He also thanked the Department of Justice Office of International Affairs, the Indian Central Bureau of Investigation, and the Delhi Police for their assistance.