- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 6, 2004

An international investigation has netted 135 arrests in connection with illegal telemarketing operations, many of which targeted “the elderly, the needy and the vulnerable,” Attorney General John Ashcroft said yesterday.

Telemarketing fraud is thought to have caused losses exceeding $1 billion, Mr. Ashcroft said, with more than 5 million victims in a variety of schemes, including bogus lotteries, fake prize pitches, fraudulent sweepstakes, tax-fraud schemes and phony preapproved credit cards.

The probe showed that criminals are using increasingly complex networks and schemes to “bilk and prey on consumers,” Mr. Ashcroft said during a Justice Department press conference to announce the arrests.

“Thanks to the growth of computer networks and international telecommunications, criminals now have the ability to deceive and to steal from honest citizens even when the criminal remains thousands of miles away.”

The investigation, which began in January and is known as “Operation Roaming Charge,” resulted in 100 arrests in the United States and 35 in Canada and overseas in what Mr. Ashcroft called the “most intensive, cooperative international law enforcement effort ever launched to stop telemarketing fraud.”

Sixty-nine search warrants were served in the United States and 129 in Canada. Seventy persons have been charged in the probe. State prosecutors have brought nearly 300 criminal, civil and regulatory actions against illegal telemarketing operations, Mr. Ashcroft said.

The investigation targeted at least 10 persons in New York, including reputed members of the Gambino crime family — at least one of whom was identified as a Gambino crime capo, or leader. They were charged in a telephone-fraud scheme that purportedly generated about $500 million in gross revenues.

In California, Mr. Ashcroft said a Nigerian national, Charles Dikei, was extradited from his home country to the United States to face charges in a telemarketing-fraud scheme based in Vancouver, British Columbia, that involved phony lottery prizes for elderly victims. Mr. Ashcroft said more than 1,700 people were swindled out of $3 million by Mr. Dikei and his associates.

Chris Swecker of the FBI’s criminal investigative division said telemarketing-fraud schemes have become more sophisticated and international in scope, but that the victims are often elderly residents of the United States. He said several international crime syndicates are involved.

“Perhaps the best defense against fraudulent telemarketers, however, is an educated public,” Mr. Swecker said. “We strongly urge the public to be aware of the various scams out there. Those include foreign lotteries emanating from Canada, Nigeria and Spain; advanced-fee schemes, scams where perpetrators masquerade as federal law enforcement agents who claim to help recover lost monies; and any scams that tout high yields with low risk.

“In short, any type of telemarketing operation where you have to put up money to collect money is probably a scam,” he said.

Chief U.S. Postal Inspector Lee Heath said his office responded to 80,000 mail-fraud complaints last year and 78,000 this year. But, he added, swindlers who use the telephone, computer and the mail to defraud U.S. consumers are “getting their own wake-up call.”

Postal Inspection Service investigations resulted in 64 arrests and 64 convictions that led to sentences ranging from five months to 12 years, he said. Nearly a million victims suffered losses exceeding $650 million, and in Florida alone, he said, 10,000 older Americans lost $700,000 to a telemarketing scheme that solicited contributions to benefit law enforcement agencies, firefighters and veterans organizations.

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