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Massive international fraud tricked seniors into sending money to criminals in Baltimore, federal indictment says

A 91-year-old living on the Puget Sound in Washington got an urgent call in January 2019: His grandson was a passenger in a vehicle stopped in Baltimore with a large amount of cocaine, and he was being held on federal drug charges.

He needed $13,000 in cash for bail, urgently, the caller said, which the worried grandparent agreed to send overnight. He later sent another $9,000 so his grandson could retain an attorney.

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But the call had come from Canada, with the money directed to a vacant home in Baltimore and intercepted by people working as part of a sophisticated network throughout North America to bilk seniors. Investigators say at least 70 victims lost a total of $1.5 million.

Federal authorities in Baltimore announced Friday that they have indicted three alleged members of the scheme on conspiracy to commit mail fraud. Additional charges were brought in federal court in Indiana, while investigators in Canada said they executed 17 search warrants in the Montreal area and met with 35 people connected to the fraud.

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“Any parent or grandparent can relate to the fear and the urgency to act that these victims were experiencing when they received those phone calls,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Jonathan F. Lenzner, calling the scheme “both ruthless and well-organized.”

FBI Supervisory Special Agent Keith Custer said the outfit made as many as 1,000 to 1,200 calls a day, the vast majority fruitless. But when they snagged a victim, they continued to collect more cash, and convinced the victims not to mention the situation due to a “gag order” requiring secrecy.

“There were a number of them working in conjunction, each playing different roles as police officer or lawyer, or even (a) member of the family,” Custer said. “They were very well-rehearsed. They knew exactly which levers to pull.”

A Baltimore woman, Amaya English, 21, was among those charged in U.S. District Court in Maryland. Authorities said she tracked packages of cash over the Internet and relayed their delivery status to other conspirators.

Also charged is Medard Ulysse, 37, of Miami, and Eghosasere Avboraye-Igbinedion, 26, of Mirarmar, Fla. Two other Florida men were charged previously and pleaded guilty last fall — admitting they defrauded 28 elderly victims of more than $939,000.

Prosecutors said Ulysse recruited people in Florida, with promises of travel and cash payments, to retrieve packages sent by elderly victims. The conspirators identified locations where no one would be present to receive a package.

In the calls, the conspirators claimed they were calling on behalf of a relative who needed cash for bail money, legal fees or other expenses. In one case, an 89-year-old Michigan woman was called by someone purporting to be “Officer Booth,” who said her grandson had been in a car crash and that drugs were found. She sent $8,000, and eventually $30,000.

Jennifer C. Boone, the Special Agent in Charge of the FBI’s Baltimore Field Office, said seniors and others should know that government agents working in an official capacity should not ask for money urgently and secretively, through cash, prepaid cards or gift cards.

“Seniors should also protect their personal information and not divulge it over the phone, through mail or on internet unless they initiated the contact,” Boone said. “They should talk over investments with a trusted friend, family member or financial advisor, and resist the urge to act quickly or secretly, which are frequent tactics used by scammers.”

Victims were encouraged to file a complaint online with the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center or by calling 1-800-225-5324. Elder fraud complaints can be filed with the FTC online or at 877-FTC-HELP.

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