Phantom Debt Collectors From India Harass Americans, Demand Money

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"If Mr. Patel was just a cog in the wheel he seems to have been a pretty big cog," Leibowitz said. "It is clear that Patel was integrally involved with this scam."

Leibowitz points to thousands of pages of financial and phone records gathered by the FTC and filed as part of a civil case brought against him in the U.S. District Court in Sacramento last month. When FTC lawyers sought to freeze his assets and prevent his business from continuing to operate, Patel responded by invoking his rights against self-incrimination. His lawyer told ABC News he has had to be careful in how he responds to the allegations in civil court "because there is a potential criminal action," but that Patel maintains the allegations against him are false.

Federal investigators said the phantom debt collection operation that allegedly benefitted from Patel's assistance was one of several that all trace back to the same small town in Western India called Ahmedabad. Callers use technology to make it appear that the calls originate inside the U.S. Victims provided ABC News with recordings of dozens of the calls, and many of the thickly accented callers appear to be reading off a script.

"Subpoenas have been readied, and Monday morning you're going to be picked up from your home," one caller says on a victim's voicemail. "And you have children. Don't worry about your children. We have a childcare department to take care of the children."

"You will be behind bars for six months," said another caller. "And once you go behind bars, you will lose your job. Once you are behind the bars, you won't get a single drop of water."

William Peerce Howard, a Tampa attorney who represents victims of harassment from debt collectors, said it takes an especially twisted criminal to use threats and coercion to pry money from someone who is already struggling financially

"These guys really are the most visible villains in America today," he said. "They make a living scaring people."

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Mark Merola, of Florida, said he just panicked when the caller told him he might be arrested at the deli where he works in a Florida retirement community.

"I was nervous. I didn't want to embarrass myself, my family," he said. He used his debit card to pay the collector $576.

Afterwards, he says he realized "how stupid I was."

"It just happened so fast," he said. "I got scared."

Leibowitz said he hopes with more attention, future potential targets of the scam will recognize red flags before they turn over any money.

If callers say they are from the police, consumers should know that law enforcement officers do not collect debt for private parties. If the caller is speaking with a thick Indian accent, but calls themselves by a names such as Officer Mike Johnson, that should be a tip off. And if they're calling 40 times in two hours, that's another red flag. "Legitimate debt collectors, legitimate pay day lenders don't do those sorts of things," he said.

Merola said he would like to see anyone involved in the scam prosecuted aggressively.

"There's no place in society for these people," he said.

For tips on how to avoid being scammed by a phantom debt collector, CLICK HERE to go to the Federal Trade Commission's website.

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