LOS ANGELES (CN) – Three Colombian nationals residing in Los Angeles were arraigned Monday on federal grand jury charges of defrauding elderly Hispanic women in a scam that sought payments from victims in order to cash purported winning lottery tickets.
The Nov. 12 federal grand jury indictment charges four defendants with conspiracy to commit wire fraud in a scheme involving at least 11 incidents targeting elderly Hispanic women across LA County.
Under the scheme, defendants approached victims and called accomplices pretending to be lottery officials who falsely confirmed the winning lottery ticket was valid, according to the 12-page indictment.
But the fake lottery officials told victims over the phone that ticket winnings would only be released if a fee or deposit was paid in advance.
Another defendant would then approach the victim and offer to help cash the false lottery ticket, an act that purportedly encouraged the victim to offer money or jewelry toward the lottery deposit, prosecutors say.
Defendants would drive victims to their homes or their banks to retrieve money and other valuables.
With cash and jewelry in hand, victims were then driven to a random home where defendants falsely claimed the remainder of the lottery funds would be delivered – only to drive away quickly, leaving victims empty-handed, according the indictment.
The three Colombian nationals facing charges – Luisa Camargo, 38, Mercedes Montanez, 68, and Tito Lozada, 49 – were arrested in Long Beach, California, and are being held in federal custody without bond.
Lozada faces a separate charge of possessing equipment used to create credit card readers and card writers that are commonly used in wire fraud schemes.
Authorities originally picked up the trio on state charges filed by the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office.
After a criminal complaint was filed in October, the three defendants were transferred to federal custody on Nov. 5.
Authorities arrested the fourth defendant in the matter – Maria Luisa Henao, 43, a U.S citizen – in San Diego and transferred her to LA for arraignment.
Henao, who has pleaded not guilty to the charges, is being held without bond and was ordered to stand trial on Jan. 14.
If convicted of charges of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, the defendants face a maximum of 20 years in federal prison.
While the defendants face charges related to six victims, investigators have linked them to at least 11 incidents in Southern California since 2017, including in Maywood, Baldwin Park, Hawaiian Gardens, San Pedro and Chula Vista.
In a March 2017 incident in Maywood, defendants stole nearly $14,000 in cash and other valuables from a victim identified in court papers as S.G., authorities say.
The indictment says that in March of this year, Henao and another defendant drove a victim to a Wells Fargo bank in Chula Vista and stole $14,000 that the victim has removed from her safe deposit box.
At least one incident took place in the San Francisco Bay Area city of Vallejo, court documents said.
Nick Hanna, U.S Attorney for the Central District of California, said in a statement Monday that residents should be vigilant about potential lottery scams.
“This was an organized group that singled out older women for the sole purpose of ripping off these vulnerable victims with bogus promises of a big payday,” said Hanna. “While law enforcement will do everything possible to bring criminals like this to justice, this case should serve as a reminder to potential victims and their family members that no one should ever pay an upfront fee in relation to any prize, sweepstakes or lottery.”
Paul Delacourt, Assistant Director in Charge of the FBI’s Los Angeles Field Office, said in a statement that educating residents will be key in helping them avoid falling prey to lottery scams.
“Our elderly community is often a convenient and lucrative target for con artists and, while we’ve charged some of the perpetrators in this case, we know many others are at work to take their place,” Delacourt said in the statement.