Maaz Ahmed Shamsi and Zeeshan Khan appeared no different than any of the hundreds of other international students who usually arrive in Centre County, Pa., each fall on visas allowing them to study or receive on-the-job training in the United States.
They lived in a modest apartment in Boalsburg, less than 10 minutes from Pennsylvania State University’s flagship campus. They hung out in State College, mixing among the students.
But while most scrape by on financial aid, work-study jobs, and student loans, Shamsi, 23, and Khan, 22, routinely had thousands of dollars passing through their bank accounts — all now alleged to be proceeds from a global robocall scam industry that swindles more than $150 million from Americans each year.
According to federal prosecutors in New Jersey, the pair were members of a ring of college-age “money mules,” all recruited from the same campus in eastern India — the International Institute of Hotel Management in Kolkata — and sent to the U.S. specifically to collect the proceeds of this transnational fraud.
Once here, Shamsi and Khan allegedly opened a dozen bank accounts in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York, and watched the money roll in from scam victims, most elderly, who had been instructed by call centers in India to wire money their way. Prosecutors say the pair allegedly sent the ill-gotten gains to accounts in South Korea, China, and Hong Kong, often before suspicious banks could halt the transfers.
The men allegedly moved more than $618,000 swindled from 19 U.S. victims between January and May alone.
At least a half-dozen others linked to the hotel management school have been arrested since January in New Jersey, Texas, and Colorado on similar charges. Each arrived in the U.S. ostensibly as part of a work-study program giving foreign students an opportunity 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.”
The specifics of the scam will sound familiar to countless Americans, who are bombarded with nearly 26 billion such calls a year, according to the third-party call blocking software company YouMail.
A recorded message purportedly from the FBI, the IRS, or Social Security warns the recipient they face imminent arrest, fines, deportation, or the suspension of government benefits, and urges that they call a provided number immediately.
The return call is then routed to a call center where “dialers” with American-sounding names and accents offer to settle the issue for an immediate payment, often a fraction of the sum they say is owed.
The vast majority of targets recognize the calls as bogus and hang up, the Federal Trade Commission says. But with billions of such calls each year, even a small success rate generates millions in profits.
Americans lost more than $128 million to “government impostor frauds” in 2019 alone, according to the FTC. And eastern India has become an epicenter of the industry, home to dozens of call centers, filled with professionally dressed workers sitting in cubicles and handling dozens of calls daily from American marks.
The Justice Department has attempted to crack down, filing lawsuits in January against two American telecom carriers responsible for routing the robocalls into the U.S. phone network and extraditing from Singapore the head of a network of Indian call centers to face charges in a first-of-its-kind case.
But the allegations of a network of students recruited from one specific school to exploit the U.S. visa system appears to be a new development.
The complaint against Shamsi and Khan cites one Los Angeles man who allegedly was victimized multiple times in the same scheme. He first received a robocall purporting to be from Norton Antivirus, alerting him he was entitled to a $400 refund.
After being convinced to grant remote access to his computer to process the transaction, the caller on the other end of the line suddenly insisted he’d accidentally overpaid the man and demanded the victim send the money back via a $4,000 Google gift card.
The alleged victim did see an overpayment in his account, but it was his own money, secretly transferred there from another of his accounts, which the perpetrators accessed through his computer. Not knowing that, he sent the $4,000.
Then, the call center contacted him days later to alert him that the man he’d previously spoken to had been fired for fraud, and that he was owed a refund on the $4,000 he had been swindled into sending. He fell victim again, this time wiring more than $14,000 into an account held by Khan.
Authorities have said little about how Shamsi and Khan were recruited for the scam, or how they came to be in State College and later New Jersey, where they were living when arrested 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.”
An attorney for Khan did not return calls for comment.
Like most of the other Indian students, Shamsi and Khan arrived through participation in the Foundation for Worldwide International Student Exchange, a Tennessee-based nonprofit that helps place thousands of international students each year at universities and workplaces around the country.
Prosecutors have not alleged that the foundation or the school they came from had any knowledge of the scam.
“We as a hospitality institute are committed to providing meaningful education to students and strongly condemn any illegal activity,” said Sanjukta Bose, director of the International Institute of Hotel Management in Kolkata, in an email. “We do not support any student who acts against the law.”
According to court filings, the Omni Orlando Resort in Florida alerted federal authorities after one student intern placed there reported hearing rumors that many of his colleagues from Kolkata school had been recruited before arriving to participate in the fraud scheme.
By that time, many had spread across the country.
Prosecutors did not specifically say where Shamsi and Khan worked as part of the exchange program. But they listed their home address as the Toftrees Country Club in State College when they applied for Social Security numbers soon after arriving in November 2019.
Court records show another alleged “money mule” arrested in Monroe Township, N.J., last year told police that he had been recruited in India by a man who paid for his flight to Tampa, Fla., then directed him to drive to New Jersey. There, he was allegedly supplied with 30 fake IDs and paid $300 for each package he picked up filled with cash sent by victims from UPS and FedEx locations across Middlesex County.
Homeland Security Investigations agents have since linked him to collections of more than $300,000 from more than 70 U.S. victims. His attorney declined to comment.