U.S. Attorney General William Barr, flanked by top law enforcement officials from the FBI and other agencies, announces the largest-ever sweep of elder fraud cases. He spoke Thursday, March 7, from the Justice Department.
En español | The nation’s top law enforcement official on Thursday announced the largest-ever crackdown on fraud against older Americans, highlighting a yearlong effort that led to criminal charges against 225 people here and abroad.
U.S. Attorney General William Barr said the cases, combined with civil actions taken against dozens of other people, involved more than 2 million victims in the U.S. with losses totaling more than $750 million. Altogether, more than 260 criminal and civil defendants were caught in the enforcement effort, he said.
“Crimes against the elderly target some of the most vulnerable people in our society,” Barr said, addressing reporters at a news conference at the Department of Justice.
Barr, flanked by officials from the FBI, Secret Service, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service and other agencies, described a double-barreled approach to root out elder fraud, which according to conservative estimates costs older Americans about $3 billion a year.
Barr called elder fraud a “despicable problem” and promised his department would ratchet up efforts to wage an “all-out attack” against such crimes.
Barr was also the attorney general from 1991 to 1993 and noted that his old official portrait was used two years ago by fraudsters on Facebook in a scam promising help obtaining government grants.
“I was a lure, if you can believe that,” he said, describing being besieged with calls at the law firm where he worked from people who wanted him to fulfill his purported promise to send them money.
A Georgia woman told him she’d lost her life savings of $40,000 to the con, according to Barr, who said a TV station broke the story of his image being appropriated and helped him get the portrait off Facebook.
Federal and state authorities focused largely on computer tech support cases, he said. In these, criminals, through a phone call or a pop-up warning on victims’ computers, con them into believing the computer has a virus or has been hacked. Often the bad actors, many from transnational crime groups, masquerade as representatives of legitimate firms, such as Microsoft, Apple or Amazon, according to DOJ.
Victims are persuaded to give the fraudsters remote access to their computers, ostensibly for technical help, then the fraudsters demand quick payment or even steal money or personal information from them.
Separately, investigators and prosecutors singled out more than 600 people nationwide who allegedly helped fraudsters by acting as “money mules.” A mule is someone who transfers money acquired from illicit acts and forwards it to perpetrators or ringleaders of fraud schemes — or their associates in the U.S. acting as middlemen — either by mail or electronically.
The mules, in the vast majority of cases, avoided civil or criminal sanctions and instead received warning letters since they did not know they were facilitating a fraud, according to a senior Justice Department official.
Addressing how overseas fraudsters target victims, the official said many work from call centers based in India, and these range in size from small operations to large-scale call rooms with more than 500 workers operating on day and night shifts that make calls 24 hours a day.
He and a second senior Justice Department official spoke on condition that they not be identified by name.
“We realize, look, this is a nationwide problem,” the second senior official from the Justice Department said. “This affects every single [federal] district: rural, urban, tribal, big cities, small towns. No one is immune to this.”
Family members, friends, faith leaders — even hairstylists — should keep a close watch for possible signs that an older person is caught up in a fraud or scam, the official said.
“If a senior falls victims to these scams — say they lose their life savings — what happens next? They lose their house, right?” the official continued. “They lose their car. They have nowhere to go. Their health starts to fail and everything spirals, right? And by the time they ask for help, it’s almost too late.”
The sweep involved alleged fraudsters charged criminally and extradited from Canada, the Cayman Islands, Costa Rica, Jamaica and Poland, officials said.
Fraud prevention tips
In announcing the sweep, DOJ released tips to prevent elder fraud, saying:
- If you get a call, be wary of anyone who demands money in a hurry, particularly if he insists you go to a store and purchase gift cards as a means of payment.
- If you are a caregiver or relative of an older American, pay attention to letters they receive in the mail. Ask about phone calls from strangers and people purporting to provide tech support or to represent the government.
- File complaints about suspected fraud to the Federal Trade Commission (ftccomplaintassistant.gov), to the FBI (ic3.gov) or to a state attorney general.
The DOJ said its sweep involved cases that dated to March 2018. Some of the scams targeted people who were age 60 or older; others were cases in which more than half of the victims were in that age group.
Attorneys general in four states — Florida, Minnesota, Ohio and Texas — were involved, according to the DOJ. The United States also got help in the cases from Europol, which fights crime in the European Union, and from authorities in Belgium, Canada, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain and the United Kingdom.
William Webster, 95, who formerly led the FBI and CIA, addressed the news conference with his wife and detailed their 2014 experience being threatened by a Jamaican lottery scammer — a saga the two shared in an AARP story.
“Our elder fellow citizens deserve our support … and we’re going to do everything we can to ensure that they are not defrauded, and they are protected,” he said