SAN DIEGO — The San Diego County District Attorney announced criminal charges against a 22-year-old San Gabriel man on Tuesday in connection to two common, but sophisticated scams that robbed an elderly San Diego woman of her life savings.
The man, Zhi Gao, was arrested in a sting operation at the 65-year-old victim’s home last Thursday and faces charges of attempted grand theft among others.
According to prosecutors, he is accused of being courier for a larger theft ring that defrauded the woman over several weeks by posing as both Microsoft Tech Support and Chase Bank to convince her to pay more than $200,000 in cash to them.
DA Summer Stephan said that the scam included two of the most common ruses encountered by law enforcement: the “tech support scam” and “banking scam.”
The woman was first targeted with the “tech support scam.” According to Stephan, the victim’s encountered a pop-up message from Microsoft on her computer after it froze, directing her to call a phone number to “fix her computer.” Then, a scammer solicited an initial $120 from the victim.
“After believing that she was dealing with Microsoft, the scam then shifted from a tech-support scam for a banking scam,” Stephan said during a conference on Tuesday.
As part of the “banking scam,” those involved in the network contacted the victim once again, but claimed they were from Chase Bank and had identified fraud on her account. According to prosecutors, they instructed her to withdraw her money out of existing bank accounts in cash so it can be secured in a “safe account” while the “fraud division” investigated the case.
Over several weeks, she made several withdrawals between $20,000 and $30,000 that were handed off to a courier for “safe keeping.” She ultimately lost more than $200,000, Stephan said.
It was not until the victim’s family conducted a routine check of her account that they noticed the suspicious activity and reported the case to San Diego police.
Authorities then worked with the victim and her family to take Gao into custody when he arrived at her residence, allegedly aiming to pick up another package.
“Couriers like Gao pick up the money from victims and then deliver it to another person in the network or convert the cash to cryptocurrency and send it out of country,” Stephan said. “Sadly, the money is lost.”
According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, tech support scams are to blame for the largest number of victims nationwide with the most in California.
This year so far, San Diego County residents have reported losses that have already exceeded $75 million in losses due to financial scams — over $26 million more than was reported in all of 2022, according to Stephan.
The DA’s office wants this case to be a warning to seniors in San Diego, encouraging them to be more vigilant about verifying suspicious information that is prompting withdrawals of large sums of money.
“We are alerting our community about the most common and current scam that is stealing precious life savings from our seniors,” Stephan said. “This egregious case of financial elder abuse is a compelling reminder to seniors and their families to be aware of the warning signs of a scam and reach out for help.”
Stephan also hopes to put these scammers on notice that they will be caught and prosecuted to the full extent of the law.
“We take this very seriously,” she added, “because it affect more than the money.”
Gao has not yet been arraigned in connection to the case due to an issue with the availability of a Mandarin interpreter, the DA added. He is expected to appear in court again sometime in the coming weeks.
According to prosecutors, he could receive up to two years and six months in custody if convicted on all charges that he faces.
FOX 5’s Danielle Dawson contributed to this report.