PHILADELPHIA - Maaz Ahmed Shamsi and Zeeshan Khan appeared no different than any of the hundreds of other international students who usually arrive in Centre County, Pa., each fall on visas allowing them to study or receive on-the-job training in the United States.
They lived in a modest apartment in Boalsburg, less than 10 minutes from Pennsylvania State University's flagship campus. They hung out in State College, mixing among the students.
But while most scrape by on financial aid, work-study jobs, and student loans, Shamsi, 23, and Khan, 22, routinely had thousands of dollars passing through their bank accounts - all now alleged to be proceeds from a global robocall scam industry that swindles more than $150 million from Americans each year.
According to federal prosecutors in New Jersey, the pair were members of a ring of college-age "money mules," all recruited from the same campus in eastern India - the International Institute of Hotel Management in Kolkata - and sent to the U.S. specifically to collect the proceeds of this transnational fraud.
Once here, Shamsi and Khan allegedly opened a dozen bank accounts in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York, and watched the money roll in from scam victims, most elderly, who had been instructed by call centers in India to wire money their way. Prosecutors say the pair allegedly sent the ill-gotten gains to accounts in South Korea, China, and Hong Kong, often before suspicious banks could halt the transfers.
The men allegedly moved more than $618,000 swindled from 19 U.S. victims between January and May alone.
At least a half-dozen others linked to the hotel management school have been arrested since January in New Jersey, Texas, and Colorado on similar charges. Each arrived in the U.S. ostensibly as part of a work-study program giving foreign students an opportunity to be interns at topflight American resorts.
"I really can't stress enough the level of sophistication of the scheme we're dealing with, which has now spanned the entire country," Assistant U.S. Attorney Meriah H. Russell said in an April hearing in Trenton for another defendant caught in the dragnet. "We're talking millions of dollars. We're talking about money laundering. ... It's massive. It's complicated. They're sophisticated."
The specifics of the scam will sound familiar to countless Americans, who are bombarded with nearly 26 billion such calls a year, according to the third-party call blocking software company YouMail.
A recorded message purportedly from the FBI, the IRS, or Social Security warns the recipient they face imminent arrest, fines, deportation, or the suspension of government benefits, and urges that they call a provided number immediately.