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Smelling huge profits in targeting older Americans, organized gangs —the underworld syndicates that once focused on drug trafficking, gambling and other high-profile crimes —are increasingly entering the consumer fraud business, according to interviews with several law enforcement officials.
These syndicates, often based overseas, are using impersonation, intimidation and, in rarer cases, violence to steal from older people, according to the officials. Their elaborate structures and finely honed scams have made these criminal rings highly successful and difficult to catch.
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“This is a billion-dollar underground economy run by highly organized groups in the United States and abroad. These are not lone wolves sitting in their basements,” says Scott Pirrello, a San Diego County deputy district attorney who helped develop the FBI-led San Diego Elder Justice Task Force.
In 2020, the task force uncovered a domestic crime ring that prosecutors say stole more than $2 million from Americans, most of whom were 70 or older, as part of an elaborate grandparent scam.
Grandparent scams —in which a criminal claims a grandchild is in dire legal trouble and needs help — have been around for years. But officials say this one was run by an organized crime ring that targeted victims in multiple states.