A man and woman pleaded guilty to a nationwide racketeering scheme targeting the elderly that took more than $300,000 from at least 10 San Diego County residents.
Joaquin Lopez, 46, of Hollywood, Florida, and Anajah Gifford, 33, of North Hollywood, California, entered guilty pleas this month, admitting to their roles in a scheme that took more than $2 million from more than 70 senior citizens across the nation. Four others remain charged in the case, including two who remain at large.
Co-defendants Jack Owuor, 25, of Paramount, and Timothy Ingram, 29, of North Hollywood, pleaded guilty in March and are awaiting sentencing.
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, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
“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.”
Prosecutors say 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 U.S. Attorney's Office, the defendants phoned senior citizens and falsely claimed their grandchildren were in legal trouble and needed money to resolve fabricated issues such as paying for bail, and medical expenses or to prevent additional criminal charges from being filed against them.
“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.
According to the indictment, the scammers took elaborate steps to conceal their true identities from victims and law enforcement. 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.
The U.S. Attorney's office said this is the first case to be 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. Officials say the Elder Justice Task Force 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.