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FBI and Grandmother Bring Down Crime Ring, Part 2

The FBI investigation into a rash of grandparent scams gets a big break: a video and an eyewitness

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spinner image graphic quote reading "The victims in this case were people like you and me. And what these criminals were doing was striking at emotional pressure points."
Full Transcript

[00:00:01] Bob: This week on The Perfect Scam.

[00:00:03] Arun Rao: We felt that this crime was particularly noteworthy and deserving of focused attention by the federal government because of the emotional trauma that was being inflicted on these victims. You know the victims in this case were people like you and me. And what these fraudsters were doing was striking at emotional pressure points. And so, as part of our investigations, we try to look at why and how these particular fraudsters are reaching out to particular victims.

(MUSIC SEGUE)

[00:00:43] Bob: Welcome back to The Perfect Scam. I'm your host, Bob Sullivan. When we last left FBI agent Brady Finta, he was looking at video provided by Susan Donald, video of a messenger who had arrived at her home in San Diego who came to pick up $9000 she said was intended to help bail Susan's grandson out of jail. The caller had said the teenager had been in a car accident that injured a pedestrian and he was in a lot of trouble. So, Susan scrambled to get $9000 in cash, but realized soon after she handed over the envelope with the cash, that the messenger was really a criminal. And she shared the video evidence she had with law enforcement. Her family also contacted a local TV station which aired a story about the scam, and it turned out Susan wasn't alone.

[00:01:36] (newscast): We first alerted you to this scam targeting grandparents on Tuesday. Since then, several more local victims have come forward calling News 8, telling us that they too gave thousands of dollars to this same woman caught on security video.

(doorbell ring)

[00:01:53] Bob: In this clip, you can briefly hear the messenger respond to Susan after she gives the criminal the $9000.

[00:02:00] (newscast): The elaborate scam plays out the same way it did for the last victim I interviewed who says she handed the same woman $9000 on Tuesday.

            "She said to move your butt because they're on a deadline."

            "Okay, have a great day.

            "Thank you."

            "You, too."

[00:02:15] Bob: Just as fast as she appears, the messenger is gone with the cash. Often crimes like this go unsolved, but Brady and his law enforcement partners believe this situation is unique. There is video. If they can find and arrest that messenger, it might lead to catching an entire criminal operation. Afterall, that $9000 has to be going somewhere. But investigators must proceed carefully.

[00:02:43] Brady Finta: Another thing that you don't want to do in these cases, as an investigator, is to show your hand too early with too low level of participant in the fraud, 'cause that could truncate your case, it could kind of end things before they start. So part of the process is identify one of those couriers, identify their handler probably through financial records, surveillance, you know, the normal old school investigative techniques, and try to work your way up the criminal enterprise before you do anything like contact or arrest that courier, which is one of the things we did in this case.

[00:03:24] Bob: The courier, we learned last episode, had taken steps to hide her tracks. She rented a car in another county. She parked it around the block. It takes a while, but eventually the FBI is able to find her, and when they do, Susan is asked to ID her. No small task during COVID times, when almost everyone is wearing a mask.

[00:03:47] Susan Donald: Probably was three or four months at least, and she called me and she said they've arrested someone. And I went, "Really? Oh my gosh, that's wonderful news." And, "Will you come down for a lineup?" And I said, "Absolutely." It wasn't easy. And she has a mask on. All I could see when I replayed it for myself, which I, I did so that I really could, you know I had an impression of her eyes, and I, when I went in there, I was focusing on that, and that's what I did when I identified her. And I said, "That's her." Just by her eyes.

[00:04:22] Bob: But even after the arrest, well the investigation proceeds slowly. The FBI knows that this messenger is really a money mule sent to collect cash from victims and deliver it to a handler, who will then deliver it to most likely someone overseas. But at first, the messenger won't squeal.

[00:04:43] Brady Finta: Well, to tell you the truth, she was a tough nut to crack. She, um, did not want to participate or to cooperate for quite some time.

[00:04:55] Bob: That means the FBI has to start pulling on every other thread it can find.

[00:05:01] Brady Finta: Yeah, it was a big combination of investigative techniques. The cell phone records and financial records were huge, put in a fair bit of surveillance, interviews, search warrants in different places around the country, search warrants on electronic devices; it was really the whole kind of gamut. At one point in time we even started writing a white collar wiretap affidavit, but the subjects changed their phone so much, it was very, very difficult to do.

[00:05:27] Bob: Susan's messenger finally changes her tune when she's staring a long prison sentence in the face.

[00:05:35] Brady Finta: The fact that the local district attorney charged with felony robbery, which carries a pretty stiff sentence, because she caused fear and coercion when she took the money from our particular victims here in San Diego County, that's when she essentially wanted to reveal her role in the organization. But by that point in time, the FBI Elder Justice Task Force and our partners had really developed all that evidence on our own, and had a whole bunch of her co-conspirators already in our sights.

[00:06:07] Bob: And when the FBI starts rounding up those co-conspirators, what they find is pretty shocking.

[00:06:15] Brady Finta: One of them was a subject in the Phoenix area, a female. She happened to be a great grandmother, who we collected evidence that showed that she was laundering some of the money from our victims. So given the opportunity, relatively early in the case, we approached her and told her what we knew she was doing, admonished her that it was against the law, and um, she also chose not to cooperate. So later in the case, when we determined that she was still conducting money laundering operations, we issued a, an arrest warrant for her. Unfortunately for us at the time, she was overseas, and we cooperated with foreign authorities to locate her in Albania, to arrest her, and hold her long enough until she could be extradited back to the United States, which is exactly what happened.

[00:07:17] Bob: Had you ever arrested a great grandmother for money laundering before?

[00:07:21] Brady Finta: (chuckles) I never arrested a great grandmother for anything before. Uh, I don't know if that was a first. Of course, we just looked at it as a co-conspirator in this fraud that was given the opportunity to avoid criminal activity, and she just chose otherwise.

[00:07:36] Bob: I know there are some situations where people do this unwittingly. They're, they're asked to receive packages, and then reship the packages or whatnot. But in this case, you talked to her and said, "Do you realize what you're doing?" And she initially denied it and then kept doing it anyway. Is that how it went down?

[00:07:53] Brady Finta: That's essentially how it went. She was given the opportunity to cooperate, or just stop her legal activity. She chose not to.

[00:08:01] Bob: She chose instead to transport money for the criminal gang, a lot of money.

[00:08:08] Bob: You're saying that she was money laundering, but just put a fine point on it for our listeners. She was going to people's houses, knocking on their doors, collecting thousands of dollars, and then sending it somewhere. Can you tell me what she was doing precisely?

[00:08:21] Brady Finta: If you are a money launderer that is on the low end of that totem pole, meaning you're simply collecting the funds that were stolen or fraudulently obtained from others, and you are passing them to another facility, either in the form of cash, through bank accounts, and in this case, very often, through cryptocurrency, you actually don't know necessarily the source of the funds or where they're going, so she was not traveling to these victims homes, she was essentially collecting the money and rerouting it for the criminal organization in general. At one point in time, she actually drove from the Phoenix area to Los Angeles after having receiving, I want to say, $180,000 in cash in a parking lot, and then drove it to a residence in Los Angeles to, to drop it off.

[00:09:19] Bob: Wow, that's amazing. And she knew she had $180,000?

[00:09:24] Brady Finta: Yeah we have, we have evidence that she spent time counting it and communicating about the totals, yes.

[00:09:31] Bob: Why would someone take envelopes full of cash, in this case, $180,000, and send it overseas? Money. Everyone involved gets to keep a nice chunk of money. In one of the crimes committed by this ring, a victim sent $40,000 to a mule, text messages show the instructions for distributing the cash. 70% would be sent to the woman who eventually ran off to Albania, 10% to the middle manager, if you will, who was giving the instructions, and the money mule kept the rest - about $8000. Not a bad day's work. Perhaps that's why the crime network was unusually protective. The FBI had a lot of trouble getting these criminals to divulge information about each other.

[00:10:19] Bob: I am surprised to hear you say that both these women you've spoken about so far, they held out to protect them. Why the loyalty?

[00:10:27] Brady Finta: I don't know that it's loyalty as much as an initial erred version of self-preservation. One of the things that we find among some of these lower level participants is they're made to feel like they are part of something, and that someone's going to look out for them if they ever got into trouble. What I've also found is that doesn't happen. The criminal enterprise doesn't bond together and support the couriers and the money launderers on the low end of these totem poles. They leave them out to dry, so there's also other things involved from this particular case. There were probably relationships developed prior to the criminal activity and/or family connections that, you know, people are hesitant to cooperate against those kind of folks.

[00:11:17] Bob: As investigators continue to accumulate evidence, they work with prosecutors at the Department of Justice. The case is very complex, says US Attorney, Arun Rao. He oversees the Consumer Protection Branch of the Civil Division at the Department of Justice.

[00:11:33] Arun Rao: This case was first brought to my attention by prosecutors in my office, and they flagged this case as a matter that spanned a number of different states. I think ultimately here we had more than 40 elderly victims in 12 different states, and so, you know, that presented a practical concern, right, where do we bring this case when we have victims spread across a number of different jurisdictions. And so that's what made this case interesting to us. We were talking about not just California, where we ultimately did bring the charges in San Diego, but we also had victims in New York, in Georgia, and in Ohio, among other states. And so trying to grapple with that practical problem was where, I first became aware of this particular scheme.

[00:12:23] Bob: And he is anxious to bring the case, because the crimes are awful.

[00:12:28] Arun Rao: That was part of what drew us to this case. We felt that this crime was particularly noteworthy and deserving of focused attention by the federal government because of the emotional trauma that was being inflicted upon these victims. You know the victims in this case were people like you and me. And what these fraudsters were doing was striking at emotional pressure points. And so, as part of our investigations, we try to look at why and how these particular fraudsters are reaching out to particular victims. And in this case as you, I'm sure you know, the claim here was that their grandchildren were in trouble in some fashion, and using that strong emotional tie to get these victims to do what a lot of us would do, which is instinctively act to protect their loved ones. I had the same reaction that I'm sure a lot of your listeners would have as well, which is that it's a very upsetting way in which victims are preyed upon. I thought of my own parents and how they might react to someone telling them that I was in trouble, and using that love for their children against them just struck me as a really gross abuse of trust.

[00:13:55] Bob: The real breakthrough, however, comes with the way Arun and the others decide to prosecute the cases. They treat this crime ring like the mob.

[00:14:05] Arun Rao: This was an unusual case because of the statutes that we used to bring it. So this was, to our knowledge, the first time we've used the so-called RICO statute to bring a case involving fraud against elders. As you may know, RICO stands for Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations, and that was a statute that was initially enacted by Congress back in 1970. It has been used to combat organized crime. What that statute does that makes it a useful tool for prosecutors is that it allows us to target enterprises or in common parlance, groups of individuals who are associated and who are committing crimes in a coordinated manner but are not a formal legal entity. And so our use of the RICO statute in this case demonstrates how seriously the department is taking these types of crimes that impact older adults. And it allowed us to take what may have seemed to individual prosecutors or law enforcement on the ground as individual, unrelated crimes, and actually tie those together into a prosecutor role pattern of racketeering. This was a case in which we thought the use of the RICO statute was appropriate because these schemes were inflicting considerable emotional trauma on the victims. They were based upon fear for the safety and wellbeing of loved ones, and so, you know, we felt that as these crimes were evolving our use of the statute should take that into account as well.

[00:15:54] Bob: Given that this was the first prosecution of its kind, well, it's not going to be easy.

[00:16:00] Bob: Why is it as challenging as it is to build a case like this?

[00:16:03] Arun Rao: It can at times be difficult to connect seemingly unrelated events into a full-fledged pattern of criminal activity. These are people who are expert at covering their tracks, sometimes they use voiceover internet protocols for example to uh, mask uh, what the phone numbers are that are being used, which can be, make it difficult to track. And so connecting these seemingly unrelated incidents can take a lot of work and a lot of time. And you have to, I don't want to say you have to get lucky, but you have to have pieces of evidence that can help you build a larger case and put together the pieces. So, for example, you know, in this case, we relied on things like Ring video that allowed us to identify some of the people who were actually showing up to pick up cash from the victims.

[00:17:05] Bob: And then in August of 2021, roughly a year after that messenger rang Susan's doorbell, criminal charges are announced. The federal case includes the indictment of eight individuals, six of them are arrested.

(MUSIC SEGUE)

[00:17:20] Bob: The defendants stole more than $2 million from victims across the nation with at least 10 in San Diego County. The Justice Department said in its announcement, "It is despicable that these fraudsters preyed on a grandparent's care and concern for their loved ones to line their own pockets," said US Attorney, Randy Grossman, for the Southern District of California. Susan, and what Brady calls her famous video, were critical to turning the complex investigation into a set of indictments.

[00:17:53] Bob: How important was Susan to the case, and the fact that she didn't let it go?

[00:17:57] Brady Finta: She was absolutely essential. She was the lynchpin in the beginning of this case. I don't know that we would have gotten certainly the, kind of the jumpstart on the case without her and without her evidence. It's funny, even after you've been doing the case for a year, a year and a half, when you go back to start to present things, not only to prosecutors, but to grand juries, to judges, that bit of evidence identifying that very first courier came up and was used time and time again during this case.

[00:18:28] Bob: But Susan doesn't stop there. When it came time for the courtroom, prosecutors made sure that the judge heard from Susan and other victims before sentences were doled out.

[00:18:40] Bob: You need an anecdote to humanize things, don't you?

[00:18:43] Brady Finta: Amen. Particularly with that kind of culture of victim blaming, and also evaluating cases based on oh well, they didn't lose that much money. That all goes away as soon as you meet, as soon as you meet some of these victims. Some of the victims that testified at the sentencings of a couple of our more significant criminals, just broke your heart sitting in the back of the courtroom. And I was anesthetized to you know the case after working it for a year and a half, you know, and everything that happened on the case, but I was practically brought to tears by the statement to these folks that it was still so poignant to them, and so kind of raw in their lives.

[00:19:24] Bob: In the end, prosecutors get guilty pleas from all six defendants who were arrested.

[00:19:29] Susan Donald: I went down, and I spoke to the judge, myself and two others that had been scammed with a victim advocate through the district attorney, worked with all of us and brought us down for the court date. And we saw the defendants. There were three or four the day that I was there. And they were sentenced, in one case 9 years, another case 4 years. The judge was not sympathetic I was told by the FBI and everything that she was a really, a really good judge as far as not taking anything as an excuse or as to why, not giving them any leeway.

[00:20:07] Bob: But while all those arrested did plead guilty, the FBI didn't catch everyone involved.

[00:20:13] Brady Finta: You know, I think there are still two defendants who are still fugitives, and I think that's one of the struggles, one of the challenges that we have in cases like this, is when you're dealing with a large group of individuals, it's very difficult to time your arrest such that other certain defendants aren't tipped off. And so, you know, we still have a, a few defendants who have not been brought to justice, and I think that is a, a source of frustration, but we're hopeful that we'll be able to locate those individuals and, and bring them to court as well.

[00:20:47] Bob: Are they out of the country do you think?

[00:20:49] Brady Finta: It's a possibility. I don't think we know exactly where they are.

[00:20:52] Bob: Meanwhile, Susan gets a small measure of justice, a reminder of justice every month.

[00:21:00] Susan Donald: I'm getting $16 a month from the person, my messenger that they arrested from the court. I get a check for $16 and I wasn't going to deposit it, but I thought, you know what, I should just so that, you know, she knows, or they know that yeah, this is punishment. A very little, but it's still punishment for what she did.

[00:21:24] Bob: But that's just the start of what justice looks like for the victims.

[00:21:29] Susan Donald: They've collected quite a bit of money too, which is encouraging because those of us that were scammed, may get, will get some money back I was told. When I was talking to the FBI afterwards in the hallway, they said, yeah, you know, you were responsible for, for this happening with your identification. And I said, I didn't really know that. Not at the time, but I was finding that out through them. So that's what I mentioned earlier, it was really a good feeling, I mean not only did they arrest them and they're being prosecuted, but you know they, they're getting some money from them.

[00:22:00] Bob: But you, not only helped catch a single criminal, the, the one who stole your money, you helped catch a bunch of criminals.

[00:22:07] Susan Donald: I did.

[00:22:08] Bob: And now you're going to be a poster child.

[00:22:10] Susan Donald: I am.

[00:22:11] Bob: A lot of people are going to think you're a hero, Susan.

[00:22:14] Susan Donald: You know the, it's okay because this is something usually people keep quiet when they're older. They don’t even report it. It's okay. I, you know, I don't mind being used so to speak. I don’t want the publicity. I don't want my friends, in fact, my son in Oregon got a call the first time I was on television and said, "Your mother was on television." And I mean, you know, I really wasn't looking for that kind of publicity, but I knew, you know, if anything's going to happen, that's what they hope, these criminals, they, they don't need the notoriety or the, you know, anyone to identify. They do everything to prevent that, so I don't mind being a (chuckles) what can I say? What did you call me?

[00:22:57] Bob: A poster child.

[00:22:58] Susan Donald: A poster child. It's okay. If it helps, and it worked, which it did, I, yeah, I'm happy to do it.

[00:23:07] Bob: Well we tell people all the time, you know, it's important to report crimes and to talk about it. That's a big theme of our podcast.

[00:23:12] Susan Donald: Is it?

[00:23:13] Bob: Just as you said, if people keep it quiet, that's the, that's the worst thing that gives the advantage to the criminal. So ...

[00:23:19] Susan Donald: Exactly.

[00:23:19] Bob: ...you're a hero to me.

[00:23:20] Susan Donald: Thank you. Thank you.

[00:23:23] Bob: Meanwhile, Susan's work with the FBI isn't finished. Not at all. She made a trip to the FBI office in San Diego right before we spoke.

[00:23:32] Susan Donald: I just went out and talked to the FBI the other night, and they brought a camera crew in from DC to film it. My daughter and I were interviewed. Yes, their building here in San Diego is beautiful, and a lot of people, and there were quite a few that, and they had a whole room set up for the, you know, their cameras and the people that were doing it, and my daughter and I, and it was an hour. It was an hour segment that they'll be televising. They're really focusing on this grandparent scam right now, so it might have taken a couple years, but they had a lot of take-down to do with finding all these people and arresting them.

[00:24:06] Bob: Okay, so I, I know I'm not going to ask your age, but can I say that you're in your 70s?

[00:24:10] Susan Donald: 81.

[00:24:12] Bob: You're in your 80s. Did you think when you got to your 80s that you'd be basically an FBI agent?

[00:24:16] Susan Donald: (chuckles) No, I hadn't planned on that at all.

[00:24:20] Bob: DOJ Prosecutor Arun Rao feels strongly that the use of the RICO statute sends out a strong signal.

[00:24:28] Arun Rao: I want to talk a little bit about what this case signals for future elder fraud cases. Our use of the RICO statute in this case, uh is a signal as to how seriously these crimes are being taken by the Department and how vigorously we're going to pursue these schemes. It also sends the message that we're going to pursue all culpable parties and hold them accountable, that includes both the perpetrators who are making the phone calls, and then all of those along the way who are facilitating these crimes, whether by transferring money or otherwise providing support for these types of schemes.

[00:25:04] Bob: Something else unique about this case, it was the first prosecuted after a joint investigation by the new San Diego Elder Justice Task Force, a collaboration among the US Attorney's Office, the FBI, the District Attorney’s Office, and all San Diego County law enforcement agencies. So Arun expects more of these prosecutions coming soon. It won't be easy though. There's still a number of obstacles to getting a hold on rampant scams like the grandparent scam. One of them is a tendency that some law enforcement agencies have, well frankly, some people from all walks of life have, to blame the victim.

[00:25:43] Brady Finta: Bob, I wish I could say that it's rare, you know, that common, hey they, they're the ones that fell for it, it's their own fault, but I would say that's, that's more common than not. It's easy to say that when you don't investigate these cases, when you don't meet the victims, when you don't see the sophistication of these criminals training their co-conspirators to convince people and to put fear into them. You know, we even heard that among the agencies that we were originally working with on this case, to some degree, but that quickly faded as soon as people jump onto the case and start participating in interviewing victims, and seeing the damage that it does to their lives. But I do agree, it's something that part of the process going forward needs to be really solidified among all of our investigators and prosecutors around the country is to say, listen, they're simply victims. That is it. That's how we need to treat them. We need to treat this crime the way we do other crimes and frauds for, for decades and decades now.

[00:26:34] Bob: There also needs to be a big change in the way prosecutors and investigators decide which cases to pursue, Brady Said.

[00:26:42] Brady Finta: Our history of basing our investigative efforts on loss amounts with respect to white collar crime, I think should be reevaluated. I actually had printed on the wall on my office, this little kind of placard that says, "Behind every $14,000 victim is a million dollar case." And that's how we need to view these investigations, not necessarily from how they present, but from historically, how they end. And if we choose to investigate cases by dollar amount as opposed to the nature of the fraud, the number of victims, I think we're selling ourselves short, and I think that process needs to be reevaluated on, on many levels, but certainly from our prosecutors and our investigators, our federal investigators around the country.

[00:27:37] Bob: Brady also wants people to understand that this crime goes beyond the theft of money.

[00:27:43] Brady Finta: I would like people to know the scope of this crime, and also, how much it really does affect and damage the victims. I think we gloss over that a little bit, but the continuing trauma, sometimes even leading to early death, the seclusion that it brings, people that don't want to answer the phone, don't want to answer the door, don't want to engage with people outside, you know, their immediate circle, the kind of damage that this scourge brings on our parents and our grandparents, I think if more people thought about it in those terms, we'd be more proactive as a society.

[00:28:19] Bob: Susan will be the first to tell you, scams like this one steals much, much more than money.

[00:28:26] Bob: Let's pretend that I am the ringleader of this crime. Explain to me all that could have been stolen from you.

[00:28:35] Susan Donald: Wow. That's kind of hard to do, but it, it's mainly it's, it's not the money. And in my case, you know I, I'm not rich, but I'm not poor either. But they know what was taken from me as I worked hard all my life. I, I got an education, I've taken care of myself. I've made sure I, you know was in a good position, and then suddenly, by doing this and taking this money and making me look very foolish and very, not senile, but just unaware of what was happening to me, it made my family question whether I'm capable of making decisions and making logical or sensible decisions. You know, it, it's hard to explain because it's a feeling that you have inside of you and how do I draw that out and tell you. It's an awful, horrible feeling that everything you've worked for, and everything that you really are can be questioned now by others because of what you did to help your family.

[00:29:44] Bob: Everything you've worked for, everything you are can be questioned because you tried to help your family? That's the real crime here. And that's why there's still a shroud of silence around victims that we just have to break down.

[00:29:59] Susan Donald: It breaks my heart that other people are affected by this. I luckily came out of it pretty well, but that isn't the bad part. It's what they do and the people they do it, the people that can't, you know, make any money again, or people that you know, are taking care of their grandchildren now that may not be you know, the parents are going to say, hmm, should I be leaving my grandchildren with a person that, you know, is scammed so easily? It's just, yeah, it's just a horrible thing for everyone that has to go through it. Then and that's why people don't mention it. They don't tell anyone. It's say that you're doing what you are, because there's no reason that you would, should ever feel like fooling or taking money from grandparents is, I can't even, I can't even say it.

[00:30:54] Bob: But the whole thing is just so upsetting right, it's, it is hard to find the right words.

[00:30:58] Susan Donald: It really is. I can find words for everything, but for that part of it, that's, that was the hard part of the whole thing is, you know, because of what they did to it, because of this scam, it puts us in different eyes from the public, from our grandchildren, from everyone. And because I, I would be guilty too. I see people that, you know, that do that and think, oh, why did they do that? And until you're there, you, there's nothing you can say.

[00:31:26] Bob: To help keep you and your loved ones safe from a crime like this, we asked Arun what advice he'd offer listeners to steer clear from the grandparent scam.

[00:31:35] Arun Rao: One of the most important things is, if you find yourself in a situation like what was presented, uh in this particular grandparent scam, the first thing once you do is slow down. Whenever someone is trying to prey on your emotions, uh whether by hope or affection or fear, it's important to slow down. Uh, because that allows you to think more clearly and act more rationally, uh, when you're not overwhelmed by emotion. The second important thing uh, to remember from this particular case is the importance of talking to people. We saw in this case over and over again attempts to isolate the victims from others, and so any time someone tells you not to talk to someone, then alarm bells should go off that something's not quite right here. And you should try to seek advice and counsel from friends and relatives. That will help you get the gut check that you need, and it'll also help you slowdown, which is point one. I think it's important to learn about scams, you know, have some awareness because those who are aware of the types of scams that we've talked about today, are less likely to be persuaded by them. And so, obviously, all your listeners are on the right track, uh by listening to the podcast itself. And finally, I would say, if you're in the unfortunate situation of having sent money or personal information as a result of a scam like this, please report it to, to us at law enforcement. As we talked about earlier, not every report is going to end up in a federal prosecution here in the United States, but we can't bring any of our cases without first getting the leads and people coming forward and sharing what happened to them. And so we use reports from victims t to, both to build these cases, and then to also inform conversations like the one we're having today about how the public, what they should watch out for and what are the new ways and techniques that fraudsters are using to try to steal money.

[00:33:37] Bob: Okay, so the first thing people should do is call their local police department, but if they feel like they're not quite getting as far as they want to, what else can they do?

[00:33:46] Arun Rao: There's a National Elder Fraud Hotline. Uh, the number if 1-833-FRAUD-11, and it's managed by the Department of Justice's Office for Victims of Crime. These are uh, experienced professionals. They provide personalized, individualized support to callers, and they will help assess each caller's needs, and they can do the legwork of identifying the appropriate reporting agencies, they can provide information to callers to help them report, to connect them with agencies and other support, and just generally provide referrals on a case by case basis. And it's available in English, Spanish, and other languages as well.

[00:34:32] Bob: And when you call, a human being is going to answer and help you?

[00:34:35] Arun Rao: That's right. That's right.

[00:34:37] Bob: Susan has a lot of advice to offer too. For one, never give out personal information on the phone, even if it seems harmless. She regrets saying to the criminal who called her first, "Is that you, Brandon?" which tipped off the caller what the name of her grandchild is.

[00:34:55] Susan Donald: Don't volunteer their name. Don't volunteer, you know, are you in Texas? Try, of course you don't know that you're volunteering at the time, but if you can, if anything ever happens, ask the question, who is this, you know, what, you know who, which grand, you know, which grandchild are you and where are you? Because this is whole, you know, backbone of their scam is getting you to believe all these things, and if you can get anything that will, you know, a light will go off in your head, that oh my God, it maybe isn't, then that's where, where you're ahead of the scam before you get really drawn into it. Or even you know, I, I read somewhere that you can set up maybe code names with your family or grandchildren to use, you know, um, when this, when anything happens like this, you know, so that everyone would have the same code name if any scam develops within the family.

[00:35:51] Bob: So, talk to your family before you get any calls like this, and have a plan. And the best plan of all is, don't disclose anything about yourself to someone who calls you unexpectedly. Get a name, a phone number, and hang up. Then take a deep breath and follow-up with friends and family. Just. Get. Off. The. Phone. It was a real turning point when Susan was willing to talk with law enforcement, to talk with local journalists, and to work with organizations like AARP to get the word out about the grandparent scam. But that's not the only turning point. Brady told us he thinks this successful prosecution should be a moment when things change.

[00:36:38] Bob: I know you feel very passionately about this. You told Sarah that you thought this case could be a turning point in the way these kinds of cases are prosecuted. What do you mean by that?

[00:36:47] Brady Finta: This case we chose because we investigated and found that this is a large transnational criminal enterprise. We used the federal RICO statute to prosecute the case because there's so many members spread out all over the place that it's appropriate. It's appropriate to use the RICO statute. Um, as far as I know, the RICO statute's never been used in an elder fraud case before, but since it is organized crime, and it does meet all those elements, I think this shouldn't be rare or an anomaly, I think this should be one of the ways we do this. Also, you know, the supreme level of cooperation we had between the main Department of Justice Consumer Protection Branch attorneys, our local US Attorney's Office, the DA's Office, and all of the departments in between, I think we showed that it's not impossible to do these cases, that they are, they are achievable.

[00:37:53] Bob: And the fact that there was a successful prosecution in this case really does, you can chalk it up to the fact that there were individuals like yourself with gumption, who followed up, flew around the country, uh but that's, that's not a process, right. That's a one-off. Well what is the solution to making this more of the standard rather than the exception?

[00:38:13] Brady Finta: I'm glad you asked that Bob, because I don't think we should leave the prosecution to these cases up to personal passions. And I do have a lot of passion. I don't know, a drop in the bucket compared to Scott Pirrello and Felix Salazar, some of the investigators and prosecutors that work these every single day, but I think the answer moving forward is more structural in terms of federal and state and, and really an all society response to this massive, massive crime, um, which I believe touches people in every state and city across the United States, and probably results in maybe even hundreds of billions in loss every year. You know we have national centers to um, help find and protect our children, to investigate terrorists and drug dealers and gang members and cyber criminals. We have national fusion centers to take in leads, assimilate that information, and develop evidence, and then push that evidence to prosecutors and investigators. And it's time that we have one for our parents and our grandparents and this vulnerable population of the United States that is so targeted by these groups overseas. So I think a national center that pulls together elder fraud leads, not only from, you know, law enforcement, but from individuals, from NGOs, from businesses, retailers, and banks. And analysts from all these different walks of life, all these public and private agencies to work together to show early and efficiently that these $14,000 dollar victims do equal million dollar cases.

[00:40:09] Bob: As a quick postscript to this episode, indulge me here, you might remember from episode 1, that early on in his FBI career, Brady was a contestant on a reality TV show, Survivor. I couldn't let him go without asking how that role helped him in his day job.

[00:40:30] Brady Finta: (laugh) Yeah, you know, it's funny, um, the, the stress that that show brings, meaning, you know, not knowing what the people around you are thinking and feeling and plotting, uh, is, it is similar in some ways, but much, much more intense than uh, than most things that I, that I've experienced with the FBI. Luckily, the people I worked with and, and spent time around at my time in the Bureau, I could easily trust my life with them.

[00:40:57] Bob: But maybe it helped you understand the criminals a little bit though.

[00:41:01] Brady Finta: Yeah, no doubt. Not that I wouldn't liken you know fellow contestants on survivors to criminals, but there might be a few parallels there.

(MUSIC SEGUE)

 

 [00:41:11] Bob: If you have been targeted by a scam or fraud, you are not alone. Call the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-908-3360. Their trained fraud specialists can provide you with free support and guidance on what to do next. Thank you to our team of scambusters; Associate Producer, Annalea Embree; Researcher, Sarah Binney; Executive Producer, Julie Getz; and our Audio Engineer and Sound Designer, Julio Gonzalez. Be sure to find us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts. For AARP's The Perfect Scam, I'm Bob Sullivan.

END OF TRANSCRIPT

In Part 2, criminals are running the grandparent scam all over the San Diego area. Often crimes like this go unsolved, but FBI agent Brady Finta and his law enforcement partners believe this situation is unique. There is a video and an eyewitness. Arresting the messenger who took Susan’s $9,000 might just bring down an entire criminal operation. But investigators must proceed carefully.

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