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U.S. Department of Justice
Office of Community Oriented Policing Services

145 N Street, N.E.
Washington, DC 20530

October 2021 | Volume 14 | Issue 10

Scammers overseas steal millions of dollars a year from unsuspecting, often elderly, victims in the United States. They usually reach their victims by phone or on the internet, impersonating U.S.-based law enforcement or government personnel or representatives of American companies to trick individuals into handing over their money. To transfer and launder the stolen money, these overseas scammers often use U.S.-based individuals called “money mules.”

Interrupting and stopping these widespread and pernicious schemes can be a daunting challenge for local law enforcement, who are usually the first responders. How can a small or medium-sized department investigate thieves who live in India, Nigeria, or other far-flung locations; prosecute their U.S. accomplices; and work to help recover a victim’s life savings?

Though there are many moving parts to such an investigation, a strong case can be efficiently built by working with federal partners and obtaining evidence from banks, the U.S. Postal Service (USPS), and commercial carriers such as FedEx and United Parcel Services (UPS).

The following case shows how the work of local officers in partnership with federal agents was key to stopping two individuals involved in a phone scam network.

Key to Investigation: Local Law Enforcement’s Quick Work

In November 2019, foreign callers tricked a man in Westlake, Ohio, into believing they were providing tech support for his computer. The callers directed the man to mail $10,000 in cash via UPS to an alias in Aiken, South Carolina, for supposed virus protection services. Soon after doing this, the man and his family realized that he had been scammed and contacted the Westlake Police Department (WPD), which acted quickly.

After interviewing the victim and learning of the mailed cash, the WPD contacted UPS. UPS soon provided surveillance images of a man picking up the package of cash and explained that two more packages to the same alias were coming to the same store in Aiken.

The WPD then reached out to local law enforcement in Aiken—the Aiken Department of Public Safety (ADPS), where Detective Margaret Moore worked. Like the WPD, the ADPS acted quickly and had officers waiting for the man when he arrived at UPS to pick up the two packages of cash.

Det. Moore immediately recognized the alias on the packages that the man tried to retrieve because the same name was used to receive cash in other fraud cases she was investigating. In fact, packages to that name were being shipped to an abandoned building, but Moore asked UPS to hold the packages at a UPS facility to better facilitate surveillance of the package retrievals.

In December 2019, the ADPS intercepted the man, later identified as Melhulkumar Patel, while he was waiting at UPS to pick up packages of cash stolen from phone scam victims.

During an interview conducted by Det. Moore, Patel initially feigned innocence, claiming that he did not know what was in the packages or whom they were ultimately intended for. But Patel provided consent to search his phone, which provided the police with critical evidence of Patel’s knowledge of the package contents.

Collaboration between Federal and State Law Enforcement was Essential

This collaboration across police departments allowed law enforcement to uncover an overseas robocalling operation and ultimately prosecute its U.S.-based money movers, who were involved in a multistate scamming operation. And in the process, law enforcement ultimately recovered and returned thousands of dollars to victims.

Federal law enforcement, led by the Social Security Administration, Office of Inspector General (SSA-OIG), relied on the work of state and local law enforcement, including the WPD and the ADPS, to uncover a large fraud scheme that led to more than $500,000 in losses from numerous unsuspecting phone scam victims.

OIG Special Agent Jon Heslep led the broader federal investigation and, working with Moore, discovered that the man in Westlake, Ohio, was just one of numerous victims living all over the United States who were swindled by the same group of scammers.

According to Agent Heslep, federal agents pulled together massive amounts of information, but solving the case would not have been possible without the work of state and local law enforcement agencies.

Jolee Porter, Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia, who is currently detailed to the Transnational Elder Fraud Strike Force at the U.S. Department of Justice Consumer Protection Branch, led the prosecution of the case in United States v. Melhulkumar Patel, et al., 1:20-CR-204 in the Northern District of Georgia. Patel and a coconspirator have since been sentenced to prison for their involvement in the scheme.

Highly Informative Webinar Provides the “How-To”

This case study was taken from a webinar called Tackling Transnational Robocall Scams: The Importance of State and Federal Partnerships.

Hosted by the Elder Justice Initiative (EJI), a component of the U.S. Department of Justice dedicated to promoting justice for older adults and providing training and resources to state and local agencies involved in this effort, it discusses how these crimes can be successfully investigated and prosecuted.

Following are a few tips from the presenters:

  • De-conflict your investigations by contacting federal law enforcement partners and asking that they run names through federal government de-confliction databases. This will allow you to connect with other law enforcement departments investigating the same targets and ensure that your investigation does not conflict with another ongoing law enforcement operation.
  • Look for notepads next to victims’ landline phones with numbers, money amounts, names, and addresses, which can be used to track down scammers. Also obtain copies of receipts and bank records showing money transfers from victims to the scam network.
  • Build relationships with personnel at common carriers, including UPS, FedEx, and USPS, who can help you obtain surveillance images and let you know when and where packages associated with fraud are being shipped.
  • Look to cell phones for evidence. Money movers often keep their IDs, mail tracking information, addresses, aliases, messages exchanged with co-conspirators, pictures or videos of the money, and bank deposit slips on their phones. This evidence is key to proving intent.
  • Report scams to the federal databases at Internet Crime Complaint Center and Federal Trade Commission (FTC).
  • State charges for this type of case include theft by false pretenses. Applicable federal statutes might include mail or wire fraud conspiracy, money laundering, or an unlicensed transfer of money.
  • Educate the public. You can obtain free bulk educational materials to distribute to your community from the FTC.

Faye C. Elkins
Sr. Technical Writer
Office of Community Oriented Policing Services

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