Department of Justice Charges Unprecedented Number of Elder Fraud Defendants and Launches Hotline
PROVIDENCE – United States Attorney Aaron L. Weisman joined Attorney General William P. Barr, FBI Director Christopher A. Wray, and Chief Postal Inspector Gary R. Barksdale today in announcing the largest coordinated sweep of elder fraud cases in history. This year, prosecutors charged more than 400 defendants, far surpassing the 260 defendants charged in cases as part of last year’s sweep. In each case, offenders allegedly engaged in financial schemes that targeted or largely affected seniors. In total, the charged elder fraud schemes caused alleged losses of over a billion dollars.
Among the individuals prosecuted in the District of Rhode Island in the past year is Julio Feliciano, 32, of Boston. Feliciano pleaded guilty in January of this year, admitting that he bilked seniors in at least four states. Feliciano admitted that he contacted individuals and told them that cash payments ranging from $7,000 to $9,500 were required to secure the release of a relative, typically a grandson or nephew, from jail. The claims were not true. Feliciano is scheduled to be sentenced next month.
In a separate case, five individuals living in Georgia and Texas were charged in the District of Rhode Island in November 2019, with allegedly participating in a conspiracy that targeted seniors online, bilking more than two dozen people out of more than two million dollars. It is alleged in court documents that beginning in May 2015, victims were contacted by scammers via online dating sites such as Plenty of Fish, Christian Mingle, and Our Time, and through social media platforms such as Words with Friends, often times feigning romantic intentions. To date, 28 individuals in more than a dozen states have been identified as falling victim to the scams allegedly employed by the five individuals named in the charged conspiracy.
In another matter, Shawn Whitfield 49, of Pawtucket, admitted to receiving more than $109,000 in upfront payments from victims, mostly elderly, who were led to believe they had won cash or prizes in a lottery or sweepstakes. Some victims were told they had won as much as $82 million. Others were told they were in line to receive $5,000 a week for life. Mercedes Benz vehicles were among the valuable prizes some of the victims were told they had won. In each instance, the victims were told their winnings would not be released to them without upfront payment of taxes or fees. The majority of funds collected by Whitfield were transferred electronically to co-conspirators and others, most often to individuals in Jamaica.
“Americans are fed up with the constant barrage of scams that maliciously target the elderly and other vulnerable citizens,” said Attorney General William P. Barr. “This year, the Department of Justice prosecuted more than 400 defendants, whose schemes totaled more than a billion dollars. I want to thank the men and women of the Department’s Consumer Protection Branch, which coordinated this effort, and all those in the U.S. Attorneys’ Offices and Criminal Division who worked tirelessly to bring these cases. The Department is committed to stopping the full range of criminal activities that exploit America’s seniors.”
United States Attorney Aaron L. Weisman added, “This office has zero tolerance for those scammers who would target our senior or other vulnerable citizens for financial exploitation. As demonstrated by this Office’s zealous prosecution of such scammers, defrauding our seniors of their hard earned savings is a sure way to being subject to federal prosecution and, if convicted, incarceration.”
“Scammers targeting seniors are a growing concern here in Rhode Island. Last year alone, more than $4.7 million in losses were reported to us by elderly victims, and we know for a fact these crimes are grossly underreported because of shame and embarrassment,” said Joseph R. Bonavolonta, Special Agent in Charge of the FBI Boston Division. “We need to work together to put these predators out of business for good. Educating ourselves, as well as our aging family members and friends, is crucial to avoid becoming a victim.”
This interactive map provides information on the elder fraud cases highlighted by today’s sweep announcement.
Elder Fraud Hotline
Attorney General Barr also announced the launch of a National Elder Fraud Hotline, which will provide services to seniors who may be victims of financial fraud. The Hotline will be staffed by experienced case managers who can provide personalized support to callers. Case managers will assist callers with reporting the suspected fraud to relevant agencies and by providing resources and referrals to other appropriate services as needed. When applicable, case managers will complete a complaint form with the Federal Bureau of Investigation Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) for Internet-facilitated crimes and submit a consumer complaint to the Federal Trade Commission on behalf of the caller. The Hotline’s toll free number is 833-FRAUD-11 (833-372-8311).
For the second year, the Department of Justice and its law enforcement partners also took comprehensive action against the money mule networks that facilitate foreign-based elder fraud. Generally, perpetrators use a “money mule” to transfer fraud proceeds from a victim to ringleaders of fraud schemes who often reside in other countries. Some of these money mules act unwittingly, and intervention can effectively end their involvement in the fraud. The FBI and the Postal Inspection Service took action against over 600 alleged money mules nationwide by conducting interviews, issuing warning letters, and bringing civil and criminal cases. Agents and prosecutors in more than 85 federal district participated in this effort to halt the money flow from victim to fraudster. These actions against money mules were in addition to the criminal and civil cases announced as part of this year’s elder fraud sweep.
These outreach efforts have helped to prevent seniors from falling prey to scams and have frustrated offenders’ efforts to obtain even more money from vulnerable elders.
The charges announced today are allegations, and the defendants are presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.
Combatting elder abuse and financial fraud targeted at seniors is a key priority of the Department of Justice. If you are a victim or know a victim of elder fraud, you can call 1-877-FTC-HELP or go to ftc.gov/complaint. For downloadable Elder Abuse Prevention resources and for information about community outreach programs in Rhode Island, visit the United States Attorney’s Office’s Elder Justice Initiative web page at https://www.justice.gov/usao-ri/elder-justice