WASHINGTON — It can be a frightening call to get – and it’s a familiar one for thousands of Americans.

Callers posing as tax and immigration agents are threatening arrest, deportation or other punishment unless money is sent to help clear up what they say is a deportation warrant or to cover supposedly unpaid income taxes.

The government says it’s a scam that’s tricked at least 15,000 people into shelling out more than $300 million.

In a first-of-its-kind nationwide takedown, the Justice Department announced charges Thursday against 61 defendants in the United States and abroad in connection with call center operations based in India. As agents fanned out across the country to make arrests, officials in Washington advised the public that the callers on the other end of the line are fraudsters and not representatives of the United States government.

“The U.S. government does not operate in this manner,” said Assistant Attorney General Leslie Caldwell, head of the Justice Department’s criminal division. “We never call to demand that money be loaded immediately onto prepaid cards. U.S. government agencies do not call to demand immediate payments to avoid deportation or to avoid arrest.”

The indictment, issued by a federal grand jury last week in the southern district of Texas, charges the defendants – which include five call centers in India – with crimes including wire fraud, money laundering and false impersonation of an officer of the United States. Defendants were arrested in multiple U.S. cities on Thursday and the Justice Department was seeking the extradition of defendants still in India, Caldwell said.

Callers working off of scripts and posing as officials with the Internal Revenue Service and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement would tell unsuspecting victims that they had failed to pay taxes they owed or were at risk of deportation, and that a fast payment was needed to get out of trouble.

Data brokers arranged the purchase of names and personal information of potential targets. “Runners” in the U.S. were responsible for getting scammed funds into bank accounts, a laundering process aided through wire transfers and prepaid debit cards. And payment processors based in India helped facilitate overseas payments.

Though the calls might appear to be obviously bogus, officials say savvy and successful individuals have nonetheless been duped. The callers used information about their victims they’d learned through open-source means to present a facade of authenticity, and numbers that showed up on a caller ID appeared to come from the government.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.