FILE PHOTO: Signage is seen at the United States Department of Justice headquarters in Washington, D.C.

A fourth member of a network that operated and facilitated a large-scale “grandparent scam” pleaded guilty to racketeering conspiracy.

According to court documents, Joaquin Lopez, 46, of Hollywood, Florida, was a member of a network of individuals who, through extortion and fraud, induced elderly Americans across the United States to pay up to tens of thousands of dollars each to purportedly help their grandchild or other close family relative. Members of the network contacted elderly Americans by telephone and impersonated a grandchild, other close relative or friend of the victim. They falsely convinced the victims that their relatives were in legal trouble and needed money to pay for bail, for medical expenses for car accident victims or to prevent additional charges from being filed. The defendants and their co-conspirators then received money from victims via various means, including in-person pickup, mail and wire transfer, and then laundered the proceeds, including through the use of cryptocurrency.

“The Department of Justice’s Consumer Protection Branch will continue to investigate and prosecute criminals who target elderly Americans and take advantage of their concern for loved ones,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Brian M. Boynton, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Division. “We are grateful to our partners at the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of California and the FBI in advancing the department’s efforts against organized elder fraud, and to the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office.”

“These defendants were part of a sophisticated criminal organization that exploited the tremendous love a grandparent has for a grandchild,” said U.S. Attorney Randy Grossman for the Southern District of California. “The victims were financially and emotionally devastated by callous people who thought only of enriching themselves. Because of the diligence of our prosecution team and law enforcement partners, these defendants have been brought to justice.”

“These guilty pleas are a prime example of the collaboration and coordination among our local, state and federal partners who make up San Diego’s Elder Justice Task Force, and the great work being done to protect our elderly population,” said Special Agent in Charge Suzanne Turner of the FBI’s San Diego Field Office. “The task force is committed to aggressively pursuing criminal organizations who prey on our senior citizens, and will utilize all available investigative means to bring them to justice. I would also like to thank the FBI’s Los Angeles Field Office for their continued support in this case.”   

Lopez pleaded guilty to conspiracy under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act. He is scheduled to be sentenced on Aug. 19. He faces a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison. A federal district court judge will determine any sentence after considering the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines and other statutory factors. Two co-defendants remain pending for trial. Two additional defendants have been charged but remain at large.

The case was investigated by the FBI’s San Diego Field Office, North County Resident Agency, with critical assistance from investigators of the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office.

Trial Attorneys Lauren M. Elfner and Wei Xiang with the Civil Division’s Consumer Protection Branch and Assistant U.S. Attorney Oleksandra Johnson for the Southern District of California are prosecuting the case.

The department’s extensive and broad-based efforts to combat elder fraud seeks to halt the widespread losses seniors suffer from fraud schemes. The best method for prevention, however, is by sharing information about the various types of elder fraud schemes with relatives, friends, neighbors and other seniors who can use that information to protect themselves.

If you or someone you know is age 60 or older and has been a victim of financial fraud, help is available at the National Elder Fraud Hotline: 1-833-FRAUD-11 (1-833-372-8311). This Department of Justice hotline, managed by the Office for Victims of Crime, is staffed by experienced professionals who provide personalized support to callers by assessing the needs of the victim and identifying relevant next steps. Case managers will identify appropriate reporting agencies, provide information to callers to assist them in reporting, connect callers directly with appropriate agencies, and provide resources and referrals, on a case-by-case basis. Reporting is the first step. Reporting can help authorities identify those who commit fraud, and reporting certain financial losses due to fraud as soon as possible can increase the likelihood of recovering losses. The hotline is staffed seven days a week from 6:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. ET. English, Spanish and other languages are available.

Additional information about the Consumer Protection Branch and its enforcement efforts may be found at www.justice.gov/civil/consumer-protection-branch. Information about the Justice Department’s Elder Fraud Initiative is available at www.justice.gov/elderjustice.