Fraudsters Took Advantage of Injured Workers

Injured workers in California thought they were calling a hotline to help them navigate the workers’ compensation system. What they got instead was more pain. Rather than getting the help they needed, callers were set up with a group of corrupt doctors, attorneys, and patient brokers who lined their own pockets at the expense of injured workers.

For years, dozens of marketers, doctors, lawyers, and medical service providers conspired to buy and sell patients—and their individual body parts—like commodities for insurance and workers’ compensation purposes. The San Diego-based fraud ring cheated the California workers’ compensation system and private insurance out of more than $200 million. They also subjected patients to unnecessary, and sometimes painful, medical procedures and corrupted the doctor-patient relationship.

Yet thanks to an investigation by the FBI, the San Diego District Attorney’s Office, and the California Department of Insurance, many of the fraudsters have been convicted and sentenced.

The network preyed predominantly on seasonal, migrant workers who travel back and forth between California and Mexico. Their work in heavy labor industries, such as agriculture, can sometimes result in injuries.

Fermin Iglesias and Carlos Arguello set up various patient recruiting and scheduling companies in Central America and Mexico to direct patients to medical service providers. Arguello operated several patient recruitment entities, including one called Centro Legal. Through billboards, flyers, advertisements, and business cards, Centro Legal recruited workers to seek workers’ compensation benefits. When an injured worker called the number on the billboard or card, a scheduling company took over to maximize the profits from that individual worker.

“The corrupt attorneys and doctors had the same goal—to bill as much as possible,” said Special Agent Jeffrey Horner, who investigated the case out of the FBI’s San Diego Field Office. “The attorneys wanted to get the largest possible settlement by any means necessary, which was traditionally based on total medical billing. The doctors wanted to make as much money as possible, without regard for the well-being of their patients.

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Creator of Website That Stole ATM Card Numbers Sentenced

Nearly half a million Alabama cell phone numbers received identical text messages in 2015 telling them to click a link to “verify” their bank account information. The link took recipients to a realistic-looking bank website where they typed in their personal financial information.

But the link was not the actual bank’s website—it was part of a phishing scam. Just like phishing messages sent over email, the text message-based scam was easy to fall for. The web address was only one character off from the bank’s actual web address.

While most recipients appeared to ignore the message, around 50 people clicked on the link and provided their personal information. The website asked for account numbers, names, and ZIP codes, along with their associated debit card numbers, security codes, and PINs. Within an hour, the fraudster had made himself debit cards with the victims’ account information. He then began to withdraw money from various ATMs, stealing whatever the daily ATM maximum was from each account.

“It was a fairly legitimate-looking website, other than the information it was asking for,” said Special Agent Jake Frith of the Alabama Attorney General’s Office, who worked the case along with investigators from the FBI’s Mobile Field Office.

The fraudster, Iosif Florea, stole about $18,000 (including ATM fees), with losses from each individual account ranging from $20 to $800. (Banks typically reimburse customers who are victims of fraud.)

Investigators believe Florea bought a large list of cell phone numbers from a marketing company, and he only needed a few victims out of thousands of phone numbers for the scheme to be successful.

The damage was minimized, however, because of the bank’s quick response. As soon as customers reported the fraud, the bank reached out to federal authorities as well as the local media to alert the community to the fraudulent messages.

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Couple Sentenced for Arson and Fraud in Fire That Resulted in First Responder’s Death

A Kentucky couple nearly escaped prosecution for setting a fire that burned their rented home to the ground and led to the death of a firefighter until a new FBI agent’s search for fresh evidence helped bring them to justice.

Steve Allen Pritchard, 44, was found guilty by a federal jury of arson and insurance fraud and was sentenced on November 1, 2018, to 30 years in prison. His wife, Brandi Pritchard, who was his girlfriend at the time of the fire, was sentenced to 121 months after pleading guilty to the same crimes.

“This case has stayed with me because it was just so senseless,” said FBI Special Agent William Kurtz of the arson investigation he supported through the FBI’s Bowling Green Resident Agency out of the Louisville Field Office.

According to case records, on June 24, 2011, Brandi Pritchard purchased a $50,000 renter’s insurance policy for the furniture and possessions within the rented Columbia, Kentucky, home she shared with Steve Pritchard. In the early morning hours of June 30, 2011, prosecutors charge that one or both of the Pritchards set fire to the home and then fled the scene.

As firefighters arrived just past 3 a.m., the structure was engulfed in flames. First responders had just succeeded in bringing the fire under control when Columbia/Adair County Fire Department Assistant Chief Charles Sparks, 49, suffered a heart attack.

When firefighters turned their focus to aiding their ill colleague, Kurtz reported, “the fire rekindled and burned the house to the ground.” Sparks died eight days later at a Louisville hospital. Firefighter fatality investigators determined the physical exertion involved in responding to the fire may have triggered his heart attack.

The firefighter’s death prompted an investigation of the fire, but “because the house burned to the ground, any forensic evidence that could have pointed to an arson was destroyed,” said Kurtz.

Immediately after the fire, Brandi Pritchard made a claim against the renter’s insurance policy. She admitted later that Steve Pritchard directed her to invent or inflate the value of items lost during the fire in order to receive the full $50,000 in the policy.

The Kentucky State Police opened an arson investigation after members of the community reported hearing Steve and Brandi Pritchard brag about setting the fire, but investigators had little to go on beyond hearsay.

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Woman indicted for posing as an immigration attorney in Tampa, Chicago

TAMPA, Fla. – Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) Tampa is looking for additional potential victims of a Tampa woman indicted Tuesday on four counts of wire fraud and three counts of wrongfully using government seals in connection with a scheme in which she fraudulently represented herself as an immigration attorney to take money from victims for services she never provided in the Tampa and Chicago areas. This case was investigated by HSI and United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).

According to the indictment, Erika Paola Intriago, 44, of Tampa, who is not a licensed attorney, fraudulently portrayed herself as an immigration attorney offering immigration-related services on social media targeting persons from Spanish-speaking countries seeking immigration-related services.

Victims retained and paid Intriago to represent them in immigration-related matters before USCIS and other agencies. Intriago is accused of then creating fraudulent letters, emails, receipts, documents, and communications to send her victims to falsely portray the records as legitimate communications with U.S. government agencies when in fact she never filed or completed the necessary immigration paperwork for which she was paid.

Intriago is also accused of threatening and intimidating victims who complained about her conduct by telling them that she would report their immigration status to U.S. immigration authorities, which Intriago claimed would result in the victims being deported.

If convicted, Intriago faces a maximum penalty of 20 years in federal prison for each count of wire fraud and up to five years in federal prison for each count of wrongfully using government seals.

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Treasurer accused of stealing $410,000 from charity for families of slain NYPD officers

The treasurer of a charity that benefits the families of New York Police Department officers who are killed in the line of duty was charged Thursday with stealing more than $410,000 from the fund.

Lorraine Shanley, 68, was charged by federal prosecutors in New York with bank fraud and aggravated identity theft. She will appear Thursday in court after prosecutors said she was stealing more than 20 percent of donations to the charity between 2010 to 2017 at least.

A person with direct knowledge of the matter confirmed to NBC News that Shanley acted as the treasurer for the nonprofit Survivors of the Shield.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York said that Shanley spent the money in a variety of ways — $29,000 for her grandchild’s private school tuition, $32,000 for personal dental expenses, and $25,000 for landscaping.

Shanley is also accused of using about $63,000 of the stolen money to pay for her son’s legal expenses related to criminal cases, prosecutors said.

Her son was reportedly served about three years in prison on drug charges from 2006 to 2009. He was also charged in 2014 with second-degree manslaughter and leaving the scene of an incident without reporting, resulting in death after he crashed his SUV in Manhattan, killing an activist, and fled. The manslaughter charges were dropped.

She also allegedly wrote $45,000 in checks to family members and other people, which she then endorsed herself and deposited into her own account. Prosecutors said Shanley, from Staten Island, also used $1,400 of the stolen money to buy Barbra Streisand tickets and $6,600 more on other event tickets.

According to court documents, 99 percent of the donations to Survivors of the Shield come from New York police officers, and on average, 5,500 NYPD employees donate to the charity each year.

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Mortgage Fraudster Caused Victims to Lose Out on Dream of Homeownership

The pitch sounded enticing: for an upfront fee, real estate “investor” Hasan Hussain promised to find clients the homes of their dreams or negotiate the loans of existing homeowners struggling to pay their mortgages.

Yet Hussain did neither of those things. He simply took his victims’ money—depriving them of their dreams of homeownership and defrauding them out of more than $1 million. Hussain targeted people for whom English was a second language, encouraging them to sign documents they did not understand.

“One woman gave him her life savings. It was her American dream to find a home, and he told her he’d help her,” said Special Agent Christina Grady, who investigated the case out of the FBI’s Boston Field Office. “But he never followed through on any promises to anyone. He would collect money—from people who didn’t have much money—and pocket it.”

Not only did he target vulnerable homeowners or would-be homeowners but Hussain also had a knack for winning his victims’ trust, becoming “like part of their family,” Grady said.

Hussain, who began his years-long fraud scheme in Rhode Island in 2009 while on supervised release for similar crimes in Massachusetts, used a variety of tactics to defraud his victims, which got more complex over time as he acquired more homes.

For example, he convinced a family struggling to pay their mortgage to move out of their home and into one his other properties; he then rented their home out, collecting rent from the tenants without paying the homeowner’s mortgage.

Another tactic involved convincing homeowners that he was trying to negotiate with their lender on their behalf. Instead he would damage their property to decrease its value, and once the home was damaged, he’d buy the home in a short sale—a term for a property being sold at a price lower than what is owed on the mortgage.

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Former FBI Director Webster Assists Investigation

The heavily accented caller who promised William Webster a grand sweepstakes prize of $72 million and a new Mercedes Benz had done most of his homework on his potential fraud target.

“I know that you was [sic] a judge, you was a lawyer, you was in the U.S. Navy,” the caller told his elderly mark. “I do your background check. You are a big man.”

What the caller, Keniel Thomas, 29, of Jamaica, missed was possibly the most salient detail about his intended victim, who was 90 years old the time: William Webster had served as director of both the FBI and the CIA, and so had a pretty good radar for pernicious criminal schemes—in this case, a Jamaican lottery scam.

Thomas’ persistent calls in 2014 to Webster and his wife, Lynda, followed the familiar arc of scams that target the elderly: The caller promises riches but requires some form of payment to move the process forward. The caller demands more and more, and then resorts to intimidation when the cooperation tapers off.

In the Websters’ case, the former judge was told he had to pay $50,000 to get his prize. When the money wasn’t forthcoming, the frequent calls escalated to scary threats, which led the couple to contact the FBI.

“I don’t know how the conversation turned sour,” said Webster, 95, director of the FBI for a decade beginning in 1978. “But it did. And at that point, he shifted gears. Instead of sweet talk, he began to threaten her.”

In one expletive-filled recorded message left on the Websters’ phone, Thomas threatened to kill them and burn down their house if he didn’t get what he wanted. “You live at a very lonely place,” he said. “And the moment you arrive, I’m gonna put a shot in your head.”

Special agents from the FBI’s Washington Field Office enlisted the Websters’ help in nabbing the caller by recording their phone conversations to build a case and develop a clear picture of the scheme. The legwork ultimately led to Thomas’ arrest in 2017 and his sentencing last month in federal court in Washington, D.C., to nearly six years in prison. It also revealed that Thomas and his relatives in Jamaica had successfully scammed others in the U.S. out of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

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Three Sentenced in Public Corruption Case

An Alabama legislator who was bribed by a corporation to represent the company’s interests—instead of his constituents’—is now serving prison time, and the two men who paid him will be serving time as well.

Former state representative Oliver Robinson, Jr., 58, agreed to a community outreach contract with a law firm that represented Drummond Company, Inc., a Birmingham, Alabama-based coal company. The contract paid Robinson $375,00 over two years. While the contract itself was not illegal, Drummond executive David Roberson and lawyer Joel Gilbert used it as a bribe to induce Robinson to take official action as a state legislator promoting the interests of the company he was secretly representing—a violation of public corruption law.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had previously informed a Drummond-owned company of its potential responsibility for environmental pollution in North Birmingham—a liability that could cost the company tens of millions of dollars. So Drummond, along with its attorneys, started a public relations campaign to oppose the EPA’s actions. The company and its representatives told local residents not to allow the EPA to test their soil and that their housing values would plummet if the EPA placed the community on its Superfund National Priorities List. Part of the overall strategy was the outreach contract with Robinson to help the company get those messages out.

In early February 2015, Robinson signed a letter (secretly authored by Gilbert) in his official legislative capacity to the Alabama Environmental Management Commission against the EPA’s actions. Later that month, Robinson signed the contract and received his first check from Gilbert’s law firm for $14,000. Four days later, he represented Drummond’s position at an Alabama Environmental Management Commission public meeting, where he claimed to be representing his constituents and did not disclose his financial relationship with the coal company or law firm.

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Fraudsters Told Prisoners’ Families They Could Buy Sentence Reductions

The sales pitch was enticing: Families with loved ones in prison could hire investigators to provide information to the government that would result in a reduction in their family members’ sentences.

It sounded too good to be true—because it was.

A group of fraudsters who made this pitch to more than 20 inmates’ families were paid more than $4 million, but neither the prisoners nor their relatives ever received any benefit.

It is possible under certain circumstances for incarcerated individuals to get a sentence reduction for providing information to the government, but they never have to pay for that. Also, those cases typically involve an incarcerated person providing information regarding their own co-defendants.

Alvin Warrick and several co-conspirators set up a company called Private Services in Texas, but the word—and the scam—quickly spread across the country. Warrick and his associates communicated primarily through email and phone and used pseudonyms in an attempt to cover their tracks. They told the families their investigators were making undercover drug buys and that those “investigations” would lead to sentence reductions for their family members. They repeatedly lied to their clients, telling them that the investigations were ongoing and working their way through the legal system.

“That is just not how the system works, but many of these families didn’t know that,” said Special Agent Tracy Masington, who investigated this case out of the FBI’s Houston Field Office along with the Department of Justice’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG).

Masington noted that at least one victim was in another country trying to get his son out of prison. Another victim was an elderly woman who, on her deathbed, made her daughter promise she’d continue paying Private Services to try to free her son from prison after her death.

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Cryptocurrency Fraudster Sentenced

Even in the world of virtual currency, where value and possession exist largely in the digital realm, laws still apply and the repercussion of breaking them are very real.

The victims of Homero Joshua Garza’s virtual currency scam lost more than $9 million, and Garza will spend 21 months in prison followed by three years of supervised release after pleading guilty to one count of wire fraud. He has also been ordered to pay restitution to his victims.

In charging documents, prosecutors contend Garza founded and operated several Connecticut-based businesses (GAW Miners, ZenMiner, and ZenCloud) between 2014 and 2015 that sold bitcoin-mining hardware, offered shares in a virtual currency mining operation, and created and sold a virtual currency called PayCoin. None of these businesses would have been illegal if conducted properly, but through a series of misleading and false statements about his companies’ capabilities, partnerships, and financial backing, Garza fraudulently drew investors to his enterprises and eventually resorted to Ponzi-scheme tactics to delay detection of his fraud.

“Garza got into this market at the right time,” said Special Agent Mark Munster, who investigated this case from the FBI’s New Haven Field Office. “The interest and enthusiasm for these currencies was high, and he was able to market himself and the business very effectively. The problem was that much of what Garza was marketing was a lie.”

The first iteration of Garza’s companies sold the computer equipment virtual currency enthusiasts use to mine, or solve the complex equations required to attain a bitcoin or other virtual currency. Munster said Garza’s business started as a legitimate operation with a clever hook—he wanted to make it easier for people who didn’t have a technical background to access cryptocurrencies.

The initial currency-mining equipment business turned into one that offered to purchase a currency miner on the customer’s behalf and set it up at the GAW Miners data center. The customer could then direct the miner’s activities and reap its profits. Garza then moved into selling shares, or “hashlets,” that represented a percentage of the profits being made by his company’s purportedly robust bitcoin mining efforts. These hashlets, Garza assured investors, would always be profitable.

Mining bitcoins at the volume needed to generate the type of value Garza was promising requires a staggering amount of computing power. These powerful computers are expensive, as is the electricity required to run them. “There were data centers,” said Munster, “but not nearly the capacity that they were representing.” Without the actual infrastructure to support the shares he was selling, returns fell far short of what was promised to investors, and Garza began using new investments in the company to pay returns to others.

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