LOS ANGELES (CN) — A federal judge on Wednesday sentenced a Southern California liquor store owner to nine years in prison for his role in an India-based telemarketing fraud scheme that scared elderly victims into sending tens of thousands of dollars in cash to ward off fake arrest threats.
Anuj Mahendrabhai Patel, 32, was also ordered to pay $490,500 in restitution.
"These people are so vulnerable," U.S. District Judge Otis Wright II said, explaining why he went beyond the 6 1/2-year sentence the prosecution had asked for. "I don't understand why anyone could be so heartless and cruel."
Patel pleaded guilty in 2021 to conspiracy to commit wire fraud. Federal prosecutors said he was the U.S. connection for a scam targeting elderly victims with calls from purported government agents who frightened them into believing that their identities or assets were at risk. In some cases, victims were told that their Social Security number was linked to a crime and that they faced arrest.
Once the impostors had convinced the victims, they directed them to send as much as much as $100,000 in cash in FedEx and other parcels to Southern California pickup locations such as Walgreens stores. Patel recruited and paid local couriers a few hundred dollars to pick up the parcels using fake IDs. He managed the proceeds of the fraud on behalf of his co-conspirators in India while keeping a percentage for himself.
The scheme came apart when Homeland Security agents picked up some of Patel's couriers who had collected a suspicious package at a Walgreens. From there, investigators tracked the deliveries to Patel's liquor store in Lake Elsinore, where they found opened parcels sent by the fraud victims in the trash.
After his arrest, Patel told investigators that he was responsible for laundering the money, saying he changed the money "from black to white."
According to his attorney Diane Bass, Patel didn't know his co-conspirators in India targeted seniors and that he only received 2% of the stolen money. She also minimized Patel's role in the scam, arguing that his liquor store was just a convenient meeting place and that some unidentified individuals picked up the stolen money from there.
Patel said at the sentencing that he was sorry for the harm he had caused.
"Please forgive me," he asked the judge.
Most elder fraud cases go unreported, according to the government, but no less than $2.9 billion is stolen from elderly victims each year through financial abuse and exploitation. Fraudsters often target seniors because they tend to be trusting and polite, according to the FBI. They also usually have financial savings, own a home, and have good credit — all of which make them attractive to scammers.
One of the victims of the scheme in which Patel participated was a 77-year-old woman who was defrauded out of $60,000. As a result, she was forced to sell her condominium and move in with her family, according to the government. Ultimately, she died "after being robbed of dignity that comes from the financial self-reliance that the victim had earned."
"Most of the victims in this case have entered what should be their 'golden years,' having sacrificed to save for their retirement," prosecutors with the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles said in their sentencing memorandum. "But instead, they were duped out of their hard-earned savings by the conspiracy that defendant helped manage."
Patel was also linked to another India-based telemarketing scam, according to the government. The number of a prepaid phone he purchased at a Target store was used as the caller ID number for calls placed from India, pretending to be from Internal Revenue Service tax collectors. Victims who responded to the calls were automatically forwarded through Patel's phone to call centers in India. One woman paid $900 in Google Play gift cards to a person pretending to be an IRS agent, according to an AT&T statement filed in court.
But Patel's attorney argued at the sentencing hearing that her client denies these allegations, which were never litigated and couldn't be used against Patel in his sentencing.
In her bid for leniency, Bass described him as a hard-working immigrant from India who grew up in poverty. After coming to the U.S. with his parents, he worked in liquor stores and a Dunkin' Donuts run by relatives until he could buy his own liquor store in 2019.Follow @edpettersson
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