SAN DIEGO — Federal charges were announced by San Diego prosecutors Wednesday against eight people accused of running a nationwide fraud scheme that took more than $2 million from elderly victims.
The U.S. Attorney's Office says more than 70 victims, including at least 10 in San Diego County, were targeted by a "grandparent scam" in which the defendants pretended to need money in order to help the victims' grandchildren escape apparent legal trouble.
Prosecutors said the scammers called victims and pretended to be grandchildren, attorneys, bail agents and others as part of a coordinated effort to extract money from the victims, supposedly to help their grandchildren post bail, and/or pay legal fees or medical expenses.
Six of the eight defendants have been arrested thus far.
They are charged in an indictment with violating the racketeering statute known as RICO, which typically is used to target organized crime. The U.S. Attorney's Office says this is believed to be the first time the statute has been used to prosecute an elder fraud case.
"The indictment alleges that this organization was involved in extortion, fraud, and money laundering -- all hallmarks of organized crime," according to a U.S. Attorney's Office statement.
Authorities said the investigation stemmed from a case out of El Cajon, in which an elderly resident was scammed out of around $9,000. The defendant, in that case, was prosecuted by the San Diego County District Attorney's Office and was recently sentenced to four years in prison.
The case then grew to include local victims in Oceanside, El Cajon, Escondido, Carlsbad, Bonita, Santee, and Coronado, as well as others across at least 15 states.
The U.S. Attorney's Office said that in addition to those playing various roles over the phone to convince victims to part with their money, other participants in the scam went to victims' doorsteps to collect payments and the funds were concealed by being converted into cryptocurrency.
Acting U.S. Attorney Randy Grossman highlighted the plight of an 87-year-old Oceanside woman who gave scammers $108,000 because she believed it would help her granddaughter.
The woman, identified only as "J.D." was told last year by a woman claiming to be her granddaughter that she was involved in a car accident and needed $9,000 for bail. Another person who claimed to be the granddaughter's attorney took the phone and warned J.D. not to discuss the case with anyone, or she would be violating a court-issued gag order.
After J.D. paid the $9,000, she was called by a supposed accident specialist who said the other driver in the crash was a woman who lost her baby as a result. In order to avoid being charged with manslaughter in connection with the baby's death, J.D.'s granddaughter needed $42,000.
Following that payment, J.D. was contacted again by someone who alleged she and her granddaughter violated the supposed gag order. To avoid jail time, her granddaughter would have to pay another $57,000, which J.D. sent in a wire transfer.
"I know some victims may be reluctant to come forward because they feel embarrassed that they fell for this hoax," Grossman said. "But I want to assure victims that it is not your fault. You are one of many, many people who were deceived by a sophisticated criminal organization whose members concocted a number of plausible storylines and conspired together to trick you. These are unscrupulous manipulators who prey on the elderly. They are to blame, not you."
San Diego District Attorney Summer Stephan said that these scammers look for posts on Facebook and other social media in which seniors describe their grandchildren, in order to sound more convincing when they call up their victims.
"They actually study social media," Stephan said. "They study it in order to throw it back and use it to manipulate and deceive."
- Tracy Adrine Knowles, 29, of Orlando, Florida, who remains a fugitive
- Adonis Alexis Butler Wong, 29, of Pembroke Pines, Florida, who remains a fugitive
- Timothy Ingram, a.k.a. Bleezy, 29, of North Hollywood, California, who was arrested in Los Angeles earlier this month
- Anajah Gifford, 23, of North Hollywood, California, who was arrested in Los Angeles earlier this month
- Lyda Harris, 73, of Laveen, Arizona, who was arrested in Albania on a provisional arrest warrant
- Joaquin Lopez, 45, of Hollywood, Florida, who was arrested in Florida last week
- Jack Owuor, 24, of Paramount, California, who was arrested in Los Angeles earlier this month
- Tracy Glinton, 34, of Orlando, Florida, who was arrested in Florida last week
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