U.S. law enforcement officials on Thursday announced what they labeled as the largest ever fraud enforcement action involving elderly Americans in U.S. history, charging more than 200 people and bringing civil actions against dozens more.
The defendants, many of them foreign nationals living outside the United States, are accused of robbing more than one million elderly Americans of more than $1 billion, the officials said.
The action was made public at a press conference in Washington by top officials from the Justice Department, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Federal Trade Commission and other law enforcement agencies.
"It's a despicable crime these people are doing," U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said. "They're the kind of people we need to be effective in targeting."
The enforcement action was coordinated among state, federal and international law enforcement agencies.
Over the past month, the Justice Department's Consumer Protection Branch and U.S. Attorney's office have filed cases against more than 40 defendants who were collectively responsible for a majority of the cases, Sessions said.
In recent days, agents from the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, the enforcement arm of the U.S. Postal Service, have executed search warrants at 14 locations that some of the same fraudsters have run for years, Postal Chief Inspector Guy Cottrell said.
And on Thursday, officers from the Vancouver Police Department in Canada served dozens of search warrants as part of the enforcement action, Sessions said.
"These warrants are being carried out against members of transnational criminal organizations that have allegedly defrauded tens of thousands of Americans and people all over the world," Sessions added.
The alleged fraudsters targeting elderly Americans typically notified them via mail that they'd won a sweepstakes prize and all they needed to do to claim it was to pay a processing fee and money for taxes. While many stopped sending money after realizing they had been duped, others continued to do so in hopes of claiming the prize.
Millions of people around the world fall for the scam.
"The losses are staggering: More than $30 million a month in the United States and globally it's over $100 million," said Cottrell.
According to the Justice Department, an estimated $3 billion is stolen or defrauded from millions of elderly Americans every year.
"And this threat is only growing," said Sessions.
In 2016, the Senate Special Committee's fraud hotline received twice as many reports as it did in 2015, Sessions said.
Last year, the FBI opened more than 1,500 financial crimes cases, including 200 involving senior Americans, said Acting FBI Deputy Director David Bowdich.
The cases involved investment fraud, such as Ponzi schemes, internet fraud such as romance and lottery schemes, reverse mortgage scams and outright theft, Bowdich told the press conference.
The perpetrators included people the victims "should have trusted, including attorneys, financial advisers, guardians and caretakers," said Bowdich.
In one case, the FBI apprehended a lawyer who stole money from the estate of an elderly person with dementia and then used it to support a lavish lifestyle, he added.