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Citizen Of India Pleads Guilty To Tech Support Fraud Scheme That Exploited The Elderly

Vinoth Ponmaran Was a Leader of a Technical Support Scheme That Deceived More Than 6,500 Victims Across the United States and Canada, Many of Whom Were Elderly, into Paying for Phony Computer Repair Services

Damian Williams, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, announced that VINOTH PONMARAN pled guilty today to participating in a conspiracy that for several years exploited elderly victims by remotely accessing their computers and convincing victims to pay for computer support services they did not need, and which were never actually provided.  In total, the conspiracy generated more than $6 million in criminal proceeds from at least approximately 6,500 victims.  PONMARAN pled guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud and conspiracy to intentionally damage victims’ computers before U.S. District Judge Vernon S. Broderick, to whom his case is assigned.

U.S. Attorney Damian Williams said: “As he admitted today, Vinoth Ponmaran was a leader of a sophisticated fraud scheme that preyed on thousands of victims, including the elderly.  This conspiracy caused pop-up windows to appear on victims’ computers — pop-up windows which claimed, falsely, that a virus had infected the victim’s computer.  Through this and other misrepresentations, this prolific fraud scheme deceived victims into paying a total of more than $6 million.”

According to the allegations contained in the Superseding Information, court filings, and statements made during plea proceedings:

From approximately March 2015 through July 2018, PONMARAN was a member of a criminal fraud ring (the “Fraud Ring”) based in the United States and India that committed a technical support fraud scheme targeting elderly victims located across the United States and Canada, including in the Southern District of New York.  The Fraud Ring’s primary objective was to trick victims into believing that their computers were infected with malware in order to deceive them into paying hundreds or thousands of dollars for phony computer repair services.  Over the course of the conspiracy, the Fraud Ring generated more than $6 million in proceeds from at least 6,500 victims.

The scheme generally worked as follows.  First, the Fraud Ring caused pop-up windows to appear on victims’ computers.  The pop-up windows claimed, falsely, that a virus had infected the victims’ computers.  The pop-up windows directed the victims to call a particular telephone number to obtain technical support.  In at least some instances, the pop-up windows threatened victims that, if they restarted or shut down their computer, it could “cause serious damage to the system,” including “complete data loss.”  In an attempt to give the false appearance of legitimacy, in some instances, the pop-up windows included, without authorization, the corporate logo of a well-known, legitimate technology company.  In fact, no virus had infected victims’ computers, and the technical support phone numbers in the pop-up windows were not associated with the legitimate technology company.  Rather, these representations were false and were designed to trick victims into paying the Fraud Ring to “fix” a problem that did not exist.  And while the purported “virus” was a hoax, the pop-up windows themselves did cause various victims’ computers to completely “freeze,” thereby preventing these victims from accessing the data and files in their computer — which caused some victims to call the phone number listed in the pop-up windows.  In exchange for victims’ payment of several hundred or thousand dollars (depending on the precise “service” victims purchased), the purported technicians remotely accessed the victim’s computers and ran an anti-virus tool, which is free and available on the Internet. 

PONMARAN was an India-based leader of the Fraud Ring.  Among other things, PONMARAN managed a call center in India that was used to provide purported computer repair services to victims of the scheme.  PONMARAN also recruited co-conspirators in the United States to register fraudulent corporate entities and open bank accounts that were used to receive fraud proceeds from victims of the scheme.  PONMARAN also laundered fraud proceeds in multiple ways, including by directing co-conspirators to wire fraud proceeds to accounts in India and the United States.

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PONMARAN, 35, a citizen of India, pled guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and one count of conspiracy to intentionally damage a protected computer, each of which carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison.  Under the terms of his plea agreement, PONMARAN has agreed to forfeit $6,110,884.51 and to pay restitution of $1,851,830.18.

The statutory maximum sentences are prescribed by Congress and are provided here for informational purposes only, as PONMARAN’s sentence will be determined by the judge.  PONMARAN’s sentencing is scheduled for June 24, 2024, at 3:00 p.m.

PONMARAN’s co-defendants, Romana Leyva and Ariful Haque, were both sentenced by U.S. District Judge Paul A. Crotty in 2022, following their respective guilty pleas.  Leyva was sentenced to 100 months in prison and three years of supervised release, and she was ordered to forfeit $4,679,586.93 and to pay restitution of $2,707,882.91.  Haque was sentenced to one year and one day in prison and three years of supervised release, and he was ordered to forfeit $38,886.32 and to pay restitution of $470,672.16.

Mr. Williams praised the outstanding work of the New York Office of Homeland Security Investigations’ El Dorado Task Force, Cyber Intrusion/Cyber Fraud Group.  Mr. Williams also thanked the New York City Police Department for its assistance on this case. 

This matter is being handled by the Office’s Complex Frauds and Cybercrime Unit.  Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael D. Neff is in charge of the prosecution.


Contact

Nicholas Biase, Lauren Scarff(212) 637-2600

Updated March 15, 2024


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