I listened to the most FASCINATING podcast, which is directly related to our blog topics which makes it even better. It’s about scam phone calls coming out of Bombay, hitting America targeting NRIs, and the money being processed by non-English speaking desperate recent NRIs driving around the American midwest. We know these people! Like, on film and also in real life!
This is a scam that most Americans have probably experienced. You get a phone call or a voicemail saying the IRS/the immigration services/payday loan/something has discovered you still owe a large debt. Most people just ignore any number they don’t know, and delete any voicemail from a government office or bank or similar. But every once in a while, someone will call back. And then they get caught in a trap as they are pressured to quick-quick-quick purchase cash cards and read off the numbers to the voice on the phone. What I didn’t know was what happens after that! Someone in India quickly sends those numbers through to a contact in the US who calls one of his “runners” and reads the number off for him to run into the supermarket where he is parked, cash it out, then take the cash to a nearby bank and deposit it to be immediately sent back to India. What I didn’t process before is how very many desis are involved in this scheme, and how few of them really know what is happening or make any real money at it. It’s a sort of scam version of extreme class oppression.
In America, you’ve got Gujurati immigrants who can’t speak English being hired on as runners with no real concept of what they are part of, they are just told this is what they are supposed to do and then given cash payments every few months. In the meantime, they drive all over the country working non-stop in freezing cold and blazing heat, sleeping in cars, eating in cars, seeing few other living souls except when they run in to their cash drops. Sure, they had some vague sense it was illegal, they were using false IDs and dealing with cash, but so far as they were concerned all that mattered was the person right above them who was telling them what to do. And yes, some of them were also Scary Dudes, with violent crimes on their records. But mostly they were just total innocents landed in a strange country and trying to survive. One of them even was tricked by the same scam he was unknowingly a part of! Got a call threatening him with deportation and loaded all his little money onto cash cards and called in the numbers without thinking about how this might be the other half of the job he did all day cashing in cash cards.
And then in Bombay, you’ve got modestly educated unemployed young people. They can speak English, but they don’t have a degree, they don’t have many opportunities, and if they are hired for a Call Centre, it’s irrisistable. The first day at the call centre, they are given the scam script and told they get paid in rupees for what they get in dollars. That is, if they scam someone out of $4,000, they get 4 thousand rupees. Which leaves their invisible bosses a profit of about $3,950. They mostly know it is a scam, but the money is too good to turn down, and anyway, all Americans are rich, right?
That’s the part I found most fascinating! The reporter talked to two young Indian men who had worked at one of those call centres for a few months. A few months in, one of them was on the phone with a woman who said she was sorry but she couldn’t pay the taxes she owed, she hadn’t been able to feed her child that day. The young man was shocked and immediately called his manager over to explain that they had called someone by accident, this person wasn’t rich. And the manager took the phone and convinced her to borrow $200 from a friend and send at least that much to them. No one gets off without giving SOME money. After that, the young man and his friend decided they would never scam anyone ever again, and instead just go into work every day and chat with the people who call in, telling them “this is a scam, you should not give us money, but how is your day going?” It was lovely, they got to talk to all kinds of interesting people in America.
Okay, these boys were adorable and I want to pinch their cheeks. But it also got me thinking about how America, and especially NRIs, are perceived in Indian popular culture. These scam centers, they work on the common assumption that all Americans are rich and serves them right for being stupid and falling for a scam. The simple realization that some Americans are poor breaks the bubble.
And there’s the NRI part of it too! The first of these scam calls were specifically targeting NRIs. Partly I am sure that is just practical, the Scam kings (and there are surprisingly few people at the top, they come up with the idea and write the scripts and then just wait for money to come in) knew exactly the buttons to push to get money from fellow desis. But doesn’t it feel a little bit like something personal? These “rich” folks who got educations and made it in America, they deserve to be tricked, to be shown up to be dumber than the folks at a call center in Bombay, and anyway they have more money than they should. That’s another thing we see in movies, the NRI has won the golden ticket and it’s kind of okay if we get a big dowry out of them or whatever else is demanded.
And then the poor NRI runners. “Poor” meaning money. They know they are doing something slightly shady, and they are working themselves to death with no life. That’s the kind of thing you do when you are absolutely completely desperate. How YUCKY!!!! Slightly better off NRIs preying on these desperate men, and even folks back in India who are living a heck of a lot better than them using them to do the dangerous work. These are the men who would get arrested, who would have to give back the money, who are right out there in the world. And they are making the least amount of money! All the money is going back to management.
The runner bosses scattered around America in nice homes with their wives and kids, and the bosses back in India with their luxury vacations and easy lives. Supposedly, one of the top scam artists (that is, the one who comes up with ideas and writes scripts and sets up centres) even bought Virat Kohli’s one of a kind Audi luxury car. Another interesting thing, if you are ripping off American money, it goes a heck of a lot farther in India than it does in America. The NRIs are the ones with the golden ticket, but the folks high up in management just want to get out of their modest American homes and back to India where the same money would put them in mansions.
You see why I found this podcast fascinating??? So much to think about, for those of us who think about diaspora issues within Indian culture! And modern India and the religion of wealth and the acceptance of corruption and so on and so forth. Plus, of course, the possibility for a complicated multi-layered Reema-Zoya script!
Characters I want:
Loving Long Term NRI couple who were both scammed on the same day, and both confessed and forgave and moved on even though it was their life saves: SRK and Kajol
NRI FBI officer who listens to SRK and Kajol’s story and starts tracking it down: Ranveer Singh
Kids in Bombay Hired by Call Centre: Sanya Malhotra and Ishaan Khattar, they just want to make enough to get married
Woman who can’t feed her kids in America: Alia Bhatt, she can start up a thing with FBI officer Ranveer who is sent to her by Sanya and Ishaan once they manage to reach the FBI
Struggling runner who just wants to make money to send back home and is the first to talk to Ranveer and help unravel the scam: Vikrant Massey
Evil Genius Sociopath Call Scriptwriter: Ranbir Kapoor
Selfish comfortable NRI in charge of runners with a wife and kids and house in the suburbs: Jim Sarbh
It’s THE PERFECT SERIES! Prime, Netflix, don’t care which so long as it is brilliantly written and perfectly cast.