NEW YORK (AP) — A leader in an India-based scam that scared American taxpayers into sending millions of dollars because they thought the U.S. government was after them was sentenced Wednesday to more than 14 years in prison by a judge who said he wanted to send a message to others considering similar crimes.
Sahil Patel, 36, sobbed as he apologized for his crimes before he was sentenced by U.S. District Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein for conspiring to extort, to impersonate government officials and to commit wire fraud.
The Manhattan judge said he needed to impose a "very serious sentence" to ensure adequate deterrence.
"The nature of this crime robbed people of their identities and their money in a way that causes people to feel they have been almost destroyed," the judge said.
Patel, of Tatamy, Pennsylvania, also must forfeit $1 million for crimes that stretched from December 2011 until his December 2013 arrest.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew Adams told the judge the fraud was "perfectly designed" to manipulate financially distressed people who would fear arrest threats.
"This man preyed on hundreds of people who were particularly vulnerable," Adams said.
Prosecutors said in court papers that callers in India impersonated law enforcement officials, sometimes threatening victims with financial penalties and arrest, and used an Internet-based calling service that made it appear phone numbers came from the FBI or the Manhattan federal prosecutor's office.
Timothy Camus, a deputy inspector general for investigations who probes crimes for the Internal Revenue Service, said in Washington that even he had received a call from scammers while at home on a Saturday.
"The caller is so aggressive it scares people," he said. "And then using the IRS as the foil — you know, 'Hey, this is the IRS. You owe this money. If you don't pay it immediately you're going to go to jail. I'm going to have you arrested tomorrow,'" Camus said.
The IRS calls it the largest impersonation scam in the tax agency's history. Since 2013, about 591,000 people have complained of calls from fake IRS agents demanding money, and 3,967 people as of Monday have reported losing more than $20 million, with a typical victim out $5,000 to $7,000.
Although Patel was called a ringleader, his prosecution has not slowed the calls, with 10,000 additional complaints occurring in the last week.
While the scam has touched people in nearly every state, the top five states for dollar losses through March were California, at $3.8 million; New York, $1.3 million; Texas, $795,884; Florida, $760,000, and Virginia, $648,363, prosecutors said.
Defense attorney B. Alan Seidler said the government overstated Patel's role.
Seidler said Patel was not a mastermind but rather arranged debit cards so victims could send money. He said Patel kept 7 percent, forwarding the rest to call center employees.
Prosecutors said in court papers Patel exploited "desperate" co-conspirators, especially women and people he thought were "dumb" and would act at his direction for a fraction of the money he generated.
"In particular, Patel held the grossly misogynistic view that women, above all other recruits, were pliable, easily manipulated, greedy and easy to control," prosecutors wrote. "Perhaps most disturbingly, Patel applied that view to his own sister."
Ohlemacher reported from Washington.