Feds: Telemarketing ring in India ran scam through Gold Bar

VCare, which claims to be a tech company, helped swindle elderly victims nationwide, prosecutors say.

GOLD BAR — A Gold Bar woman funneled tens of thousands of dollars to India in an elaborate telemarketing scam that targeted the elderly, according to a civil injunction filed last week in federal court.

A Texas man, 49, learned of the scheme when his father became so sick he couldn’t speak during a trip to Mexico in January 2018.

The son was granted power of attorney to pay bills, and found over the past months his father wired almost $85,000 to VCare USA LLC and affiliated companies, according to a letter the son submitted to U.S. District Court in Seattle.

Cold callers had warned the elderly man that his computer had been hacked, and he would need to pay for technical support to clean up the infected network. Sometimes the withdrawals were as small as $15, or as large as $5,000.

The phone calls kept coming until he died in December.

“My father was a doctor,” the son wrote. “Under normal circumstances, there was no way that he would have paid thousands of dollars, even once, for technical services for his personal computer. … However, my father was induced to make these payments after he contracted Parkinson’s disease.”

On its website, VCare listed its headquarters as a two-story house at the dead end of Goldbar Drive. The homeowner, 48, registered its business license in Washington in 2016. For at least two years she’d been “providing a veneer of domestic legitimacy” for scammers from India, according to a U.S. Postal inspector’s report filed in court Wednesday.

Telemarketers posed as a support team tied to Microsoft, Yahoo, Google or another household name in tech. The inspector found evidence of fraud totaling at least $100,000. Much of that was transferred to Itess Technologies in India, court papers say.

The scams begin as a pop-up ad, security alert or cold call.

Once a person took the bait, the telemarketer would explain their computer was at risk and the company needed to make a remote connection to assess the threat. Once the device was hijacked, the caller “confirmed” it had a virus or malware.

“Imparting a sense of urgency, the telemarketer then claims that he will install expensive and high-quality network security software to resolve the threat in exchange for a substantial sum of money,” wrote the postal inspector.

The scammers would charge from $199 to $6,999 at a time, depending on how thoroughly the person seemed duped.

The civil complaint accuses the Gold Bar woman and her company of wire fraud and money laundering. No criminal charges have been filed.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office sought to restrain her from “conducting or purporting to conduct any consumer technical-support services.”

A dozen complaints were made to the Federal Trade Commission about VCare or its phone numbers, 800-935-1758 and 866-663-1666. Fraud reports came in from across the United States.

One victim is a retired U.S. Navy petty officer in Arizona. He took a call from a supposed Microsoft employee, Mr. Brown, who sent a document with a company letterhead, to prove he’d gone through Microsoft training and even had an employee ID number.

“I had experience working with and assessing many kinds of people in all sorts of situations during my Navy career, and Mr. Brown was very convincing,” the Arizona man wrote.

Mr. Brown told him someone was trying to hack into his computer. The Arizona man followed an onscreen prompt that gave Mr. Brown access to his computer.

He paid $1,030 to install a security package.

Three days later, for no apparent reason, an extra $1,030 vanished from his bank account.

Two days later he lost another $1,000.

And the next month, he was charged $1,020.

The payments went to VCare, he wrote.

The man kept track of the company representatives he spoke with. All had generic American-sounding names: Jordan, David, Gary, and three different Rons, with last names like Smith, Williams and Wilson.

Another target of the scam was a Green Beret who retired in 2012, after 50 years in the U.S. Army as both a soldier and civil servant.

The Georgia resident, 77, recounted in court papers that a man called him in summer 2017, claiming to be connected to Yahoo. He told him his laptop, cell phone and iPad were infected with ransomware, and that hundreds of hackers could see his personal information. He was suspicious. But when he hung up and checked the company website, it looked real. He called back. He was convinced.

He clicked a prompt to give the man access to his computer. The caller offered to kill the virus, and the veteran agreed to buy a security package to be on the safe side. The caller said it would cost $10,000. The Georgia man protested. Suddenly the price dropped to $6,999.

Only later did he notice the bank transfer went to VCare, not Yahoo. The account was tied to the home on Goldbar Drive.

Three similar cases were filed in Western Washington last week against a Shoreline man, a Seattle man and an Indian telemarketing company accused of targeting at least four people around Puget Sound. Their tactics appear identical to the VCare case, but the documents don’t say if any of them worked together.

The men from King County are accused of taking 10 to 40 percent of the cut from the fraudulent proceeds. One man is accused of wiring $320,000 to India for “call center fees.”

Over 40 complaints had been made to the FTC against the telemarketing company, Elagoon Business Solutions. Cold callers would introduce themselves as Computer Phone Assist, or tech support affiliated with Apple or Microsoft, court papers say.

One former employee came forward to report Elagoon had a call center of about 40 so-called customer care workers and 10 supervisors headquartered in Kolkata, India. The person quit after concluding it was a scam.

A Silverdale man reported a $599 purchase of firewall software from Computer Phone Assist snowballed into a $10,800 theft. After payment, the caller told him the computer couldn’t run the firewall.

So he’d been credited with a refund of $5,999, which was $5,400 too much because of a typo, according to the caller.

The man, 74, tried twice to correct the error.

Federal prosecutors announced the injunctions amid a sweep of over 260 defendants in elder fraud cases nationwide.

The Gold Bar woman’s business shuttered in January, when no annual report was filed with the Secretary of State.

In the previous 2½ years, she opened seven or more bank accounts, six of which were closed because of suspicious activity, court papers say. She also tried to transfer money to India through a cryptocurrency service. The deposits were rejected as worthless.

A bank official contacted the Gold Bar woman in March 2018 to ask about her account activity. She gave vague responses, court papers say. The banker told the woman the account was being shut down because she was suspected of a scam.

It seems she wasn’t deterred, according to the inspector’s report. The majority of the consumer complaints against VCare came after the bank confronted her.

If you or someone you know has been targeted by scammers, call the FTC at 1-877-FTC-HELP. Or make a report to the FBI at ic3.gov.

Caleb Hutton: 425-339-3454; chutton@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @snocaleb.

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