LOS ANGELES (CN) - An Iraqi national was sentenced to 14 years in federal prison last week for stealing over $1.8 million, mostly from the elderly, through an international telemarketing scam. "I think that the sentence that the judge gave should be a warning to anybody who is taking advantage of elderly people. Even if you're in another country we'll catch you and you'll suffer for it," said Assistant United States Attorney Ellyn Lindsay in an interview.
Dillon Sherif, 49, was arrested in London in 2008, ending over a decade-long fraud spree in which he jumped bail twice. This June, Sherif pled guilty to three counts of mail fraud involving telemarketing fraud against the elderly.
In a statement issued by the Department of Justice, Sherif and his employees would call their elderly victims, telling them they had won, or had a good chance of winning, a large sum of money in foreign lotteries.
However, the victims were told that they had to pay for taxes or other fees to collect their winnings. Once victims sent in money, Sherif and his telemarketers often 'reloaded' them by repeatedly calling those victims again, falsely telling them they had won additional money, but would receive their winnings only if they sent additional payments." The scheme had been going on since 1999, the DOJ said.
In the late 1990s, Sherif left Canada for Spain when a Seattle judge entered a civil judgment against him, ordering Sherif to cease telemarketing. In Spain, Sherif continued to target elderly Americans and Canadians until Spanish authorities filed criminal charges against him and he escaped to Canada, where he started the final scheme that led to his sentencing.
Sherif was again arrested in 2001 in Canada, but jumped bail and fled to England, where he was finally caught. Lindsay said British authorities had arrested him on a minor charge and found his international arrest warrant while checking his fingerprints.
Lindsay, who started working on the case in 2000, said she and other federal prosecutors had evidence that Sherif had been continuing his telemarketing scam right up until his final arrest.
"All these years we have been trying to find him and we finally did," said Lindsay calling Sherif's actions "depraved." Lindsay said she believes Sherif fixated on the elderly because many are lonely and just want to talk to someone on the phone, and that some are suffering from dementia, making them especially susceptible to fraud.
"I've found in my experience that they just come from a simpler time and can't imagine that someone would get on the phone and just lie," she added. "I'll be on the phone with one of the victims and think how incredibly sweet this person is. His reaction is 'here's a sucker, someone who I can take advantage of.' That's what is so sad."
According to the DOJ, one 96 year-old victim was left homeless after Sherif convinced her to sell her house and give him the money. Lindsay said he convinced another elderly woman to do the same thing, but luckily her son stepped in and stopped the sale.
"I should say in general and one of the reasons that we prosecute a lot of these cases in the United States is because the courts here have a recognition that this type of financial crime is devastating to people. These elderly people are left penniless," said Lindsay. "It's taken our courts along time to realize how serious white collar crimes can be and in other countries they don't have the same feeling about it. It's not a crime you would keep someone in jail for instead of letting him out on bail."
Lindsay added that Sherif had told someone he worked with that he liked telemarketing in Canada, saying, "'if you get caught in Canada you only get a slap on the wrist.'"
United States District Judge Dean D. Pregerson also ordered Sherif to pay his victims $924,613 in restitution. According to the DOJ statement, Pregerson said "he had never seen anyone with such disrespect for the legal system, adding that Sherif played 'international hopscotch' to avoid prosecution for his fraud schemes."
"As a matter of warning, if anybody is telling you on the phone that you have to pay money to get money you've supposedly won, and if it sounds too good to be true, it is," said Lindsay, adding that family members should also be checking on their elderly loved ones' finances to make sure they are not being exploited. Lindsay also warned against check fraud, wherein people are instructed to cash checks they receive through the mail and send part of the money back to the sender through a wire service.
The checks are almost always fraudulent, and the victim can be arrested. "It's horrible what people are doing out there," said Lindsay. "I don't know how they sleep at night."