SAN DIEGO (CNS) - San Diego County's top prosecutor said Monday her office helped take down a transnational criminal organization that scammed victims out of hundreds of millions of dollars, including a local woman who was cheated out of more than $65,000.
One of the co-conspirators operated in Southern California and targeted senior citizens in San Diego, said District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis.
"Scam artists operating outside the United States aren't easy to catch,'' Dumanis said. ``But times are changing, and these latest arrests are proof that law enforcement isn't going to let the scammers get away with it. Our investigators, along with our Elder Abuse Unit, played a vital role in hunting down and dismantling this web of thieves.''
Federal indictments announced last week involved 20 defendants arrested in the United States, along with 32 others and five call centers in India.
Authorities said the defendants used information obtained from data brokers and other sources. Call center operators would then contact potential victims and impersonate immigration authorities or officials from the Internal Revenue Service, threatening victims with arrest, imprisonment, fines or deportation if they did not pay taxes or penalties to the government.
If the victims agreed to pay, the call centers used a network of U.S.- based co-conspirators to liquidate and launder the extorted funds as quickly as possible by purchasing prepaid debit cards or through wire transfers.
One of the San Diego victims, 86-year-old Beth Baker, fell victim to the scam artists two years ago. Instead of the IRS scam, the fraudsters used the well-known "grandma scam'' on Baker.
She received a phone call from someone claiming to be with the U.S. Embassy in Peru. The caller said Baker's grandson had been arrested in connection with a car accident and needed bail money.
The scammer told Baker to purchase pre-paid money cards -- Green Dot cards -- and to provide him with the numbers on the card, essentially transferring the money to him.
Within a week, Baker had given the scammer more than $65,000, depleting her savings account.
When Baker went to her bank to try to get a loan to send even more money, a banker realized she was being scammed and alerted her son, a former deputy district attorney.
Jim Baker urged people to watch out so their parents don't get ripped off.
"I feel badly. I didn't protect my mom,'' he told reporters.
District attorney investigators traced Baker's money through the system, which led to the identification of an Indian national living in Corona, as a person who had laundered much of the money stolen from the victim, Dumanis said.
San Diego investigators coordinated their investigation with the Department of Homeland Security, and eventually 52-year-old Dilipkumar A. Patel was identified as a significant money launderer for the Transnational Criminal Organization operating phone scams from a call center in India, according to authorities.
A search of Patel's home turned up a bank of documents, computers and cell phones, indicating he laundered more than $4.2 million for the Indian-based crime network over a one-year period. Patel was one of the people indicted by the Department of Justice last week.
In addition to Baker, another victim in her 80s in San Diego was scammed out of more than $12,000, and authorities said there are likely many other local victims.
Investigators from the San Diego County District Attorney's Office said they followed Baker's money as it was laundered through a spider web of dozens of co-conspirators across the United States and eventually to foreign countries, including India and Iran.
"It's hard work,'' said Deputy District Attorney Paul Greenwood.
The prosecutor urged the federal government to give local agencies more money to investigate scams that target the elderly.
"This crime is not going away,'' Greenwood said.
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San Diego County Sheriff's Deputy Richard Fischer is free Friday night after posting $2 million bail. He is accused of groping and assaulting more than a dozen women while on duty.