Chameleon: Scam Likely traces steps of cops and crooks in complex web of scam callers

A new season of the acclaimed investigative podcast series Chameleon follows an investigation into what was one of the biggest call centre scams ever.

More than 300 million dollars was stolen from Americans, and the tens of thousands of victims included people from all walks of life—white-collar and blue-collar workers, the wealthy and the poor, young mothers and elderly grandfathers.

Hosted by investigative journalist Yudhijit Bhattacharjee, Scam Likely chronicles the story of a small team of government investigators as they unravel a plot that stretches from strip malls in suburban Texas to drab office towers in one of the largest cities in India and hunt down the shadowy multinational mob behind the scam calls.

Yudhijit Bhattacharjee, who has been reporting on scams and fraud for some time, reported on this case and as part of his reporting, did his own investigative journalism into the scam.

“About two years ago I reported a long feature on the subject for the New York Times Magazine, which is how I got on to this project,” explains Yudhijit. “This show takes listeners on a journey that investigators took following this case of what was the biggest tele-fraud case in US history.”

In addition to following along the investigation, Yudhijit also had a chance to carry out his own investigations, especially at the Indian end. He went to India to follow up on some leads and dug up new information.

Uncovering such a scam takes an awful lot of work – for Federal Agents it was a case of following the money. Because the scammers usually asked for gift cards or transfers, there was a money trail that could be traced.

For Yudhijit, it was a case of talking to victims to understand what they had gone through, which forms a large part of the podcast series. While in India, he also had some success at managing to speak to a number of the masterminds behind the scam, who are still at large.

In order to make scammers think that the costs are too high to do this and that they might get caught, Yudhijit says greater collaboration between authorities is needed.

“The investigation in the US for this case was led by the Department of Homeland and Security and on the Indian end, by the police in one of the suburbs of Mumbai,” he says.

“While the two investigations on either side were quite diligent, there wasn’t really much of a collaboration between the two and that’s unfortunate because I think together, these two authorities could have achieved a lot more in terms of bringing the perpetrators to justice.”

One of the reasons why Yudhijit wanted to be involved in making this series was to heighten awareness of how easy it is to fall for such scams.

“People who get defrauded and lose money are often so traumatised and feel so foolish for having fallen for something like this, that they don’t want to speak publicly about it,” Yudhijit explains.

“I think there’s been enough coverage of the fact that these scams occur, and you should be careful, but what I’ve noticed is that it’s one thing to make people aware in general and quite another to train them not to respond emotionally in panic when they receive a call like this.

“One of my motivations for reporting and hosting this show was to make people aware, and I would say if you receive a phone call where someone is asking for something immediately, that is the biggest clue it could be a scam.

“If somebody says don’t hang up and don’t call anyone, don’t discuss this with anyone, you need to solve this problem right now because your grandchild has been abducted or your wife just met with an accident – hang up right then and call someone you trust to investigate the matter – I think that’s the best advice I can give to people,” he says.

As far as the scammers are concerned, when asked if those at the top who he investigated are still getting away with it, Yudhijit says: “Unfortunately this podcast promises to stay relevant for a long time to come because even though there’s more awareness about it compared to five years ago, the scammers keep evolving new techniques and strategies to target people, and people keep falling for it.”

Campside Media’s Chameleon: Scam Likely podcast is available from today – its host and reporter Yudhijit Bhattacharjee says: “This is a fascinating story that dives deeper into the world of tele-fraud than anything you’ve read or heard before.”

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