Eight people are charged in a federal grand jury indictment unsealed this week, accused of participating in a criminal enterprise that has stolen millions of dollars from elderly victims in San Diego County and around the nation.
According to statements made by prosecutors in court, the defendants swindled more than $2 million from 70-plus elderly victims across the nation, with at least 10 in San Diego County, by feeding them phony stories that their grandchildren were in terrible trouble and needed money fast.
“This scheme has left many elderly victims financially and emotionally devastated,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Randy Grossman. “It is unconscionable to target the elderly and exploit their love for their grandchildren. Elder fraud is a serious crime against some of our nation’s most vulnerable citizens. We are committed to combating all types of elder abuse in our community.”
“These defendants were part of a large network of individuals that systematically targeted elderly Americans by preying on their concern for loved ones. The Department of Justice is committed to prosecuting individuals who take part in such schemes that target vulnerable people,” said Deputy Assistant Attorney General Arun G. Rao for the Civil Division’s Consumer Protection Branch. “We are grateful to our partners at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Southern District of California and the FBI in advancing the Department’s efforts against organized elder fraud, and to the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office.”
This is the first case investigated by the San Diego Elder Justice Task Force, which is a collaboration between the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the FBI, the District Attorney’s Office and all San Diego County law enforcement agencies. The Elder Justice Task Force was established in February 2020 and is believed to be the first comprehensive law enforcement effort for this purpose anywhere in the country.
“Elder Fraud is a massive and growing problem as our county’s population gets older, with losses into the billions of dollars nationwide,” said FBI Special Agent in Charge Suzanne Turner. “The San Diego Elder Justice Task Force was set up to combine resources, experience, and capabilities to have a sophisticated and coordinated law enforcement response to fight this battle.”
“This first-of-its-kind Elder Justice Task Force leverages the power of collaboration and innovation to effectively take down organized criminal rings that target the elderly in San Diego County and across the nation,” said Summer Stephan, the San Diego County District Attorney. “The Task Force shares key information, and actively works to connect those dots and reveal patterns that lead to successful prosecutions. We believe it will become a model for the rest of the nation on how to stop the billion-dollar criminal industry of elder fraud.”
“The level of law enforcement cooperation and coordination in the San Diego Region is unique and helps make all San Diego residents safer,” said El Cajon Police Chief Michael Moulton. I commend all the investigators involved in this case for their tenacity and determination in helping bring justice to these victims. The San Diego Elder Justice Task Force is a vital component to helping protect San Diego county’s seniors.”
As of today, six of eight defendants have been arrested. The defendants are charged with violating the racketeering statute known as RICO, the federal law designed to combat organized crime. This is believed to be the first time the RICO statute has been used in an elder fraud case. The indictment alleges that this organization was involved in extortion, fraud and money laundering – all hallmarks of organized crime.
The investigation began in San Diego with one victim and a small loss, and grew exponentially to include victims in El Cajon, Escondido, Carlsbad, Bonita, Santee, Coronado and across at least 15 states.
According to the indictment, scammers contacted elderly victims, usually by telephone, and impersonated a grandchild or someone else close to the victim. The scammer pretended to be in dire legal trouble because of an accident or arrest. He or she claimed to need money for bail, medical expenses, or legal fees.
The scheme involved multiple “actors” who played varying roles using a well-rehearsed script. One would play the beloved relative; another would pretend to be a lawyer; and still others would pose as bail agents or medical professionals. They provided victims with false case numbers, and they instructed the victims to lie to family, friends, and bank representatives about the reasons for the withdrawal or money transfer.
The grandparents were so fearful and desperate to help that they handed over tens of thousands of dollars in tremendous acts of selflessness. Once the victim was on board, other members of the criminal enterprise were dispatched to doorsteps to collect money.
According to the indictment, the scammers took elaborate steps to conceal their true identities from victims and law enforcement. They used false names. They rented residences to receive cash sent through the mail and commercial carriers. They used rental cars or ride share vehicles to pick up funds from victims. And once they received funds from the victims, the scammers quickly tried to hide it by transferring proceeds to other members of the criminal conspiracy, who converted fiat currency to cryptocurrency.
According to court documents, one defendant collected $33,000 from three different victims in a single day. Messages from his phone reveal that he was provided victims’ names and addresses and used a fake name to collect money from the victims. In a text exchange with a coconspirator, the defendant asked: “What’s gon (sic) be my name”
According to the indictment, one of the victims lived in Oceanside. She was 87 years old. She is identified in the indictment as “JD.”
JD received a phone call on May 11, 2020, from a woman claiming to be her granddaughter. The caller said she had been arrested following a car accident and needed $9,000 for bail. She then turned the phone over to her supposed lawyer, who warned JD not to discuss this with anyone or risk violating a court gag order. A courier went to JD’s address and picked up the cash.
The next day, a man purporting to be an accident specialist called JD and claimed that the other party in the vehicle collision had lost her baby as a result of the accident. If JD did not provide another $42,000, her granddaughter would be charged with first degree manslaughter and spend 15-20 years in prison. JD sent a wire transfer in the amount of $42,000 to an account associated with the defendants.
The scammers didn’t stop there.
About a week later, yet another scammer called JD and advised her that she and her granddaughter had violated the gag order. If JD didn’t pay an additional $57,000, her granddaughter would go to jail. JD sent another wire transfer in the amount of $57,000 to an account associated with the defendants.
“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.”
For those who may be contacted in the future by scammers, please know that law enforcement is here to help. Please call your local law enforcement agency, sheriff, FBI or 911 if there is an emergency.
Grossman commended prosecutors Sasha Johnson from the Southern District of California, Lauren Elfner and Wei Xiang from the Department of Justice’s Consumer Protection Branch, the Justice Department’s Office of International Affairs, as well as agents from the FBI for their excellent work on this case. Grossman also acknowledged excellent work of the District Attorney’s Office and the multiple local law enforcement agencies in the San Diego Elder Justice Task Force that relentlessly investigated this case to pursue justice for the elderly victims.
DEFENDANTS Case Number 21cr2216-CAB
Tracy Adrine Knowles 29 Orlando, Florida
Adonis Alexis Butler Wong 29 Pembroke Pines, Florida
Timothy Ingram, AKA Bleezy 29 North Hollywood, California
In custody. Arrested in Los Angeles on August 10, 2021. Judge denied bond.
Anajah Gifford 23 North Hollywood, California
In custody. Arrested in Los Angeles on August 10, 2021. Judge denied bond.
Lyda Harris 73 Laveen, Arizona
Arrested in Albania on a Provisional Arrest Warrant. United States is seeking extradition.
Joaquin Lopez 45 Hollywood, Florida
Arrested in Hollywood, Florida, on August 18, 2021. He will be released on bond.
Jack Owuor 24 Paramount, California
Arrested in Paramount, near Los Angeles, August 11, 2021. Judge denied bond.
Tracy Glinton 34 Orlando, Florida
Arrested in Orlando, Florida on August 17, 2021. She is released on bond.
SUMMARY OF CHARGES
Title 18, U.S.C., Sec. 1962(d) – Conspiracy to Conduct or Participate in an Enterprise
Through a Pattern of Racketeering Activity
Maximum penalty: Twenty years in prison and a fine of not more than the greater of twice the amount of gain or loss associated with the offense or $250,000
Department of Justice’s Consumer Protection Branch
San Diego Elder Justice Task Force, which includes:
San Diego FBI
San Diego County District Attorney’s Office
San Diego Police Department
San Diego Sheriff’s Department
Carlsbad Police Department
Oceanside Police Department
Escondido Police Department
Chula Vista Police Department
El Cajon Police Department
La Mesa Police Department
National City Police Department
Coronado Police Department
*The charges and allegations contained in an indictment or complaint are merely accusations, and the defendants are considered innocent unless and until proven guilty.