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, of Tatamy, Pennsylvania, sobbed as he apologized for his crimes before he was sentenced by U.S. District Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein in Manhattan for conspiring to extort, to impersonate government officials and to commit wire fraud.
The judge said he needed to impose a "very serious sentence" to ensure adequate deterrence. Patel also must forfeit $1 million for crimes that stretched from December 2011 until his December 2013 arrest.
"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," Hellerstein said.
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 is such an exploitive fraud," Adams said. "This man preyed on hundreds of people who were particularly vulnerable."
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 their phone numbers came from the FBI or the federal prosecutor's office in Manhattan.
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As part of a presentence submission, prosecutors noted that the U.S. Treasury inspector general for tax administration, which investigates crimes for the Internal Revenue Service, reports receiving 9,000 to 12,000 reports of calls each week over similar scams.
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.
Although Patel was described as a ringleader, his prosecution has not slowed the calls, with 10,000 additional complaints being made in the last week. The inspector general's office has said the typical victim loses $5,000 to $7,000.
While the scam has touched people in nearly every state, the top five states for dollar losses were listed as California at $3.8 million, New York at $1.3 million, Texas at $795,884, Florida at $760,000 and Virginia at $648,363, prosecutors said.
Defense attorney B. Alan Seidler said the government overstated Patel's role in the fraud.
Seidler said Patel was not a mastermind, but rather arranged debit cards so victims could send money. The lawyer said Patel kept 7 percent of the money, forwarding the rest to call center employees.
Prosecutors said in court papers that 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. Perhaps most disturbingly, Patel applied that view to his own sister," prosecutors wrote.