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Feds Praise Leonia PD After Ringleader Of International Call-Center Phone Scam Gets 20 Years

Leonia police
Leonia police Photo Credit: LEONIA PD

A worldwide investigation that produced a 20-year federal prison sentence for an Indian national who ran call centers that defrauded Americans across the U.S. out of millions of dollars got a huge boost from police in Leonia.

Leonia Detective Michael Jennings, in particular, did legwork that helped federal authorities eventually identify Hitesh Madhubhai Patel, 44, as the ringleader of the transnational scheme.

For that reason, police in the Bergen County borough near the George Washington Bridge got a shout-out from the U.S. Department of Justice on Monday.

It began in 2015 when Jennings identified two other Indian nationals accused of scamming 70 victims in 32 states out of more than $170,000 as part of a larger criminal enterprise.

Posing as IRS agents, the scammers phoned victims and told them they owed taxes, then demanded payment using prepaid debit cards or wire transfers, threatening them with prison time if they didn’t comply.

"In some cases, the victims lost their life savings," Leonia Police Chief Thomas P. Rowe told Daily Voice at the time.

One of the victims contacted Jennings from Lexington, KY.

He told Jennings that a caller threatened to have him arrested if he didn't pay a $1,400 debt to the IRS, then had him wire the money to a MoneyGram account in the name of "Vincent Arora" at a CVS store on Broad Avenue in Leonia.

Jennings got a surveillance video of the pickup, created screen shots and then issued a statewide alert.

He also contacted MoneyGram and discovered that a "Vincent Arora" conducted 30 or so transactions in a week in various statewide locations.

MoneyGram later alerted Jennings that a transaction was scheduled at a Walmart in Watchung. He called his colleagues there, but they missed their target by 10 minutes. Surveillance video showed that it was the same man as in Leonia.

Things went much better the second time around:

MoneyGram again alerted Jennings to a scheduled transaction at a CVS in Elizabeth.

Elizabeth police followed their car and seized Akash Satish Patel and Nikita Natvarlal Patel after they collected money at a CVS in Union, Rowe said at the time.

Jennings and Capt. Scott Tamagny picked up the pair in Elizabeth.

The Patels, who’d both lived at the time in the Iselin section of Woodbridge, each later pleaded guilty and cooperated with the government in exchange for time served before being deported.

They told investigators, among other things, that they obtained information about their victims from accomplices working in call centers in India.

Victims “were threatened with arrest, imprisonment, fines or deportation if they did not pay alleged monies owed to the government,” the Justice Department said in a release.

“Those who fell victim were instructed how to provide payment, including by purchasing general purpose reloadable (GPR) cards or wiring money,” it said. “Upon payment, the call centers would immediately turn to a network of ‘runners’ based in the United States to liquidate and launder the fraudulently obtained funds.

Overall, federal authorities said, more than 3,000 victims lost a combined $15.5 million – including one who was taken for more than $500,000.

Thanks to the 2015 work by Jennings and his law enforcement colleagues, a joint investigation involving dozens of agencies at all levels eventually led to Hitesh Madhubhai Patel, also known as Hitesh Hinglaj.

Patel “corresponded by email and WhatsApp messaging frequently with his co-defendants to exchange credit card numbers, telephone scam scripts, and call center operations instructions,” the Justice Department said.

One of those accomplices described Patel as “the top person in India and the boss for whom most of the other defendants worked” at call centers in his Ahmedabad, Gujarat, India hometown from 2013 to 2016.

Another said Patel was arrested in India in 2016 but then paid a bribe and was released.

Patel then fled to Singapore, where authorities captured him on a U.S. warrant before he was extradited here in April 2019.

He later accepted a deal from the government rather than go to trial, pleading guilty to wire fraud conspiracy and general conspiracy to commit ID fraud, access device fraud, money laundering, and impersonation of a federal officer or employee.

Patel must spend just about all of the 20-year sentence handed down Monday by a U.S. District Court judge in Texas because there’s no parole in the federal prison system.

He also was ordered to pay restitution of $8,970,396 to the victims and spend three years of supervised release.

Patel “defrauded vulnerable U.S. victims out of tens of millions of dollars by spearheading a conspiracy whose members boldly impersonated federal government officials and preyed on victims’ fears of adverse government action,” Acting Attorney General Brian C. Rabbitt of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division said.

“The long arm of federal law enforcement was key to bringing this con artist to justice,” added U.S. Attorney Ryan K. Patrick of the Southern District of Texas. “Many of these fraudsters prey on the most vulnerable from the perceived safety of foreign lands, so there is no sorry in seeing him head to prison.”

Of 56 defendants named in a federal indictment returned in the Southern District of Texas in Houston, two dozen defendants have taken pleas or been convicted. Like Hitesh Patel, they’ve also been ordered to pay millions of dollars in victim restitution and money judgments and to forfeit seized assets.

Some, like the Patels from New Jersey, were deported.

Charges remain pending for several other India-based defendants, federal authorities said.


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