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Picture: CNN Money

Sahil Patel, 36, of Tatamy, Pennsylvania, who blamed a cocaine addiction for his downfall, sobbed as he apologized for his crimes at his sentencing for wire fraud conspiracy and other charges Wednesday in Manhattan.

U.S. District Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein said he needed to impose a “very serious sentence” to ensure adequate deterrence. Patel also must forfeit $1 million for crimes that stretched from December 2011 until his December 2013 arrest.

“The nature of this crime robbed people of their identities and their money in a way that causes people to feel they have been almost destroyed,” Hellerstein said.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew Adams told the judge the fraud was “perfectly designed” to manipulate financially distressed people who would fear arrest threats.

“This is such an exploitative fraud,” Adams said. “This man preyed on hundreds of people who were particularly vulnerable.”

Prosecutors said in court papers that callers in India impersonated law enforcement officials, sometimes threatening victims with financial penalties and arrest, and used an Internet-based calling service that made it appear their phone numbers came from the FBI or the federal prosecutor’s office in Manhattan.

Timothy Camus, a deputy inspector general for investigations who probes crimes for the Internal Revenue Service, said in Washington that even he had received a call from scammers while at home on a Saturday.

“The caller is so aggressive it scares people,” he said. “And then using the IRS as the foil — you know, ‘Hey, this is the IRS. You owe this money. If you don’t pay it immediately you’re going to go to jail. I’m going to have you arrested tomorrow,’” Camus said.

The IRS calls it the largest impersonation scam in the tax agency’s history. Since 2013, about 591,000 people have complained of calls from fake IRS agents demanding money and 3,967 people as of Monday have reported losing more than $20 million.

While the scam has touched people in nearly every state, the top five states for dollar losses through March were California, at $3.8 million; New York, $1.3 million; Texas, $795,884; Florida, $760,000, and Virginia, $648,363, prosecutors said.

Patel was not a mastermind, but rather arranged debit cards so victims could send money. The lawyer said Patel kept 7 percent of the money, forwarding the rest to call center employees.

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