8 charged in ‘grandparent fraud’ scheme that ripped off San Diego elders

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SAN DIEGO – Eight people are facing federal charges for what prosecutors say was a criminal enterprise making hundreds of thousands of dollars at the expense of elderly victims in San Diego County and beyond.

Officials say the team of scammers took more than $2 million from more than 70 older people across the nation, including at least 10 victims in the San Diego area. The scheme fed them “phony stories that their grandchildren were in terrible trouble and needed money fast.”

According to investigators, it would all start with a call to the elderly victims from someone who impersonated their grandchild or someone else close to them. “The scammer pretended to be in dire legal trouble because of an accident or arrest,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office explained in a news release. “He or she claimed to need money for bail, medical expenses, or legal fees.”

That introductory call would give way to an elaborate scheme involving multiple “actors” using a “well-rehearsed script,” investigators say.

“One would play the beloved relative; another would pretend to be a lawyer; and still others would pose as bail agents or medical professionals,” the explanation continues. “They provided victims with false case numbers, and they instructed the victims to lie to family, friends, and bank representatives about the reasons for the withdrawal or money transfer.”

Victims handed over tens of thousands of dollars to scammers who ultimately came to their doorstep to collect, according to officials.

As of Wednesday, six of eight suspects named in the federal case had been arrested. They will be charged with violating the racketeering statute known as “RICO,” which targets organized crime. Officials said it’s believed to be the first use of RICO in an elder abuse case.

The sprawling investigation began in San Diego with “one victim and a small loss,” authorities said, but it rapidly grew to include victims in El Cajon, Escondido, Carlsbad, Bonita, Santee, Coronado and across at least 15 states.

According to a federal grand jury indictment unsealed this week, one of the victims in the scheme was an 87-year-old from Oceanside. In a news release, the attorney’s office detailed step-by-step how she was scammed out of tens of thousands of dollars, referring to her by the pseudonym “JD” to protect her identity:

“JD received a phone call on May 11, 2020, from a woman claiming to be her granddaughter. The caller said she had been arrested following a car accident and needed $9,000 for bail. She then turned the phone over to her supposed lawyer, who warned JD not to discuss this with anyone or risk violating a court gag order. A courier went to JD’s address and picked up the cash.

“The next day, a man purporting to be an accident specialist called JD and claimed that the other party in the vehicle collision had lost her baby as a result of the accident.  If JD did not provide another $42,000, her granddaughter would be charged with first degree manslaughter and spend 15-20 years in prison. JD sent a wire transfer in the amount of $42,000 to an account associated with the defendants.

“The scammers didn’t stop there.

“About a week later, yet another scammer called JD and advised her that she and her granddaughter had violated the gag order. If JD didn’t pay an additional $57,000, her granddaughter would go to jail. JD sent another wire transfer in the amount of $57,000 to an account associated with the defendants.”

Officials said that JD is just one example of dozens of victims discovered by investigators, and that there could be more who have not come forward. Authorities urged anyone else who had been targeted by such a scam to share their story with police.

“I know some victims may be reluctant to come forward because they feel embarrassed that they fell for this hoax,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Randy Grossman. “But I want to assure victims that it is not your fault. You are one of many, many people who were deceived by a sophisticated criminal organization whose members concocted a number of plausible storylines and conspired together to trick you. These are unscrupulous manipulators who prey on the elderly. They are to blame, not you.”

Potential victims were asked to contact local police or sheriff’s departments or the FBI, and to call 911 if there is an immediate emergency.

The two outstanding suspects in the case were named as Tracy Adrine Knowles, who was believed to be in Orlando, Florida, and Adonis Alexis Butler Wong, another Florida resident.

Those who were already in custody were named as the following:

  • Timothy Ingram, AKA Bleezy
  • Anajah Gifford
  • Lyda Harris
  • Joaquin Lopez
  • Jack Owuor
  • Tracy Glinton

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