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Drug-Sniffing Dog, Dumpster-Diving Investigators Foil Elder Fraud Ring

Scammers posing as government officials bilked older victims of cash, gift cards

 Police K-9 dog on leash - Washington, DC USA

B Christopher / Alamy Stock Photo

En español | A drug-sniffing K-9 named Roxy was on a random inspection of a FedEx facility outside Los Angeles in October 2019. Suddenly the English Springer Spaniel canine alerted its handler to an incoming FedEx box. Secreted inside was nearly $107,000 in cash wrapped in aluminum foil.

The dog's stunning discovery of the parcel, sent by a 66-year-old fraud victim in Beloit, Wisconsin, helped lead authorities to the men allegedly behind “heinous” crimes that exploited dozens of older, vulnerable Americans across the U.S., court documents show.

Three men in Lake Elsinore, California, have been indicted in the case that is said to have tentacles reaching to India and Thailand. A grand jury charged the men in frauds totaling $541,420, and the known losses allegedly inflicted by them and co-conspirators amount to about $7 million, court documents show.

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The Wisconsin victim and others are identified by their initials and, in some cases, where they reside. The others include an 82-year-old victim who gave the fraudsters $10,000; a 71-year-old who sent them about $60,000; and a 65-year-old who gave up about $49,000 in cash — and no fewer than 98 gift cards.

The defendants received — or planned to receive — more than 50 packages during a yearlong crime spree that ended in March.

Anatomy of a government impostor scam

For older adults, especially, the alleged crimes are a cautionary tale. Based on documents filed in U.S. District Court for Central California, here's how the fraudsters operated:

1. They posed as federal government employees or law enforcement officers. Their false identities were buttressed with fake case, badge numbers and photos of phony law enforcement credentials.

2. They called victims and spoofed their phone numbers. Hiding their real numbers let them appear to be calling from legitimate government phone numbers.

3. They told preposterous lies. Some victims were told that their Social Security numbers had been linked to crimes, that courts had issued warrants for their arrest and that cash was needed to “resolve the pending warrants."

4. They demanded cash and, often, gift cards. Most gift cards were from Target, Nordstrom, GameStop, Best Buy and Walmart, among other stores. The victims gave the fraudsters the card numbers over the phone so they could be used immediately.

5. They instructed victims to send the cash through FedEx or United Parcel Service. They were told to use shipping companies that allowed recipients to pick up parcels if they had IDs matching the recipient listed on the parcel.

6. They created aliases. The couriers who picked up the parcels were armed with fake IDs to match the listed recipients.

7. They demanded secrecy. Victims were not permitted to discuss the phone calls in question “because the calls were made as part of ongoing government investigations."

8. They laundered their ill-gotten gains. Money laundering is sometimes called changing “black” money into “white,” signifying it has moved into a legitimate income stream to mask its dirty origins. The key defendant is a liquor store operator accused of such money laundering.

9. They divvied up the loot within the crime ring. The defendant who accepted parcels at the liquor store kept a cut — 10 cents on the dollar, for $20,000 in profits over four months — and told authorities that a different courier would pick up the rest of the money the same day, leaving with the cash stuffed in a black bag so it appeared he'd purchased liquor. He said that his receiving the parcels with illicit funds were “coordinated by people in India” and that the couriers who took away the money in black bags “seemed to be Russian.” This defendant and his wife, not named in the indictment, also wired more than $4,000 to people who have been charged in India and the U.S. with operating call centers targeting and scamming Americans. Some wire transfers went to people in Thailand.

Investigators scour garbage for evidence

Fortunately, three of these alleged bad actors got caught — after a probe that utilized a hidden camera, search warrants, fingerprints and “trash runs,” in which investigators immediately search garbage just collected at certain addresses by actual waste haulers. One of the trash runs happened last Christmas Eve. Not to mention K-9 Roxy's superpower: a dog's sense of smell.

"What makes these crimes particularly heinous is not only the vulnerability of the victims and the breach of trust involved, but also the victims’ stage of life. The victims usually do not have the opportunity to recover from the financial loss,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Peter Dahlquist said in a court filing.

Most victims were in their golden years, having worked hard to save for their retirement, he noted. “But instead, they were duped out of their hard-earned savings by the [lead] defendant and his co-conspirators."

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is conducting the investigation with other federal law enforcement agencies and police and sheriff's departments in nine states: California, Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas and Washington.

The three men are: Anuj Mahendrabhai Patel, 30, the liquor store operator accused of managing a “crew of couriers” who retrieved the cash-filled packages sent by victims to FedEx and UPS delivery locations; and two couriers, Elmer Miranda Barrios, 35, and his cousin William Margarito Barrios, 36, who allegedly used fake IDs to retrieve the packages and bring them to the liquor store. All face charges of conspiracy to commit mail fraud and wire fraud; William Barrios also is charged with being an illegal alien who reentered the U.S. after being deported in 2006.

AARP’s Fraud Watch Network can help you spot and avoid scams. Sign up for free Watchdog Alerts, review our scam-tracking map, or call our toll-free fraud helpline at 877-908-3360 if you or a loved one suspect you’ve been a victim.