SAN DIEGO — The 22-year-old man arrested in connection to a scam that robbed a San Diego woman of her life savings was arraigned in court on Friday.
Through an interpreter, Zhi Gao, a Los Angeles resident, pleaded not guilty to charges of attempted grand theft among others after he was arrested in a sting operation at the 65-year-old victim’s home last week.
Gao, who prosecutors say is believed to be a Chinese national in the U.S. on a visa, is accused of being a courier in a larger theft ring that defrauded the woman into handing over $200,000 in case to them over several weeks.
Authorities say it all started when the woman’s computer froze and a message, which she thought was from Microsoft, popped up with a number to call. She called and was charged $120 to fix the problem.
Prosecutors say she was targeted again by the theft ring using a banking scam, where the suspects called her claiming they were from Chase Bank and had identified fraud on her account.
The suspects then instructed her to hand over case to a courier for safekeeping while they “investigated” the fraud. According to prosecutors, the woman made several cash withdrawals, totaling around $230,000.
When the victim’s family conducted a routine check of her account, they noticed the suspicious activity and reported the case to San Diego police.
“Victims are trying to get to their banks withdraw all their money to put in what they think is going to be a secure account to save it in,” Deputy District Attorney Scott Pirrello said to FOX 5. “It’s the number one scam in San Diego right now.”
According to local authorities, San Diego County has seen more than $75 million in losses from fraud this year — over $26 million more than was reported in all of 2022, according to DA Summer Stephan.
However, only about one in 20 victims of elder fraud ever report the crime to authorities, according to prosecutors.
“We’re hoping that this one brave victim that came forward that it actually inspires others and helps other victims to prevent them from becoming the next victim of one of these scams,” Pirrello said.
Gao’s bail was set at $125,000 during his appearance in court on Friday. He’s due back in front of a judge next month with preliminary hearings scheduled for January. If convicted, he can face up to two years and six months in prison.
FOX 5’s Danielle Dawson contributed to this report.