Fatal DUIs Spike Amid COVID-19

DUI Driver Sentenced for Hit and Run That Killed a 19-Month-Old Toddler

San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan said today that a defendant who drove drunk, struck and killed a 1-year-old child has been sentenced to 15 years-to-life in prison plus an additional four years in prison for fleeing the scene. Margarito Angeles Vargas, 47, was driving with a blood-alcohol level of more than double the legal limit on September 24, 2022, when he fatally struck the young girl as she crossed a residential street with her sisters and grandparents. A jury convicted Angeles Vargas on November 15, of second-degree murder, gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated, DUI causing injury, hit and run causing death, and driving on a suspended license. Judge Amador handed down the sentence in San Diego Superior Court.

On the day of the incident, the defendant was leaving a baby shower when he ran a stop sign and nearly struck a parked truck before barreling down the 3900 block of Redwood Street in City Heights. He struck the victim in broad daylight as her family was walking in an unmarked crosswalk.

Although residential surveillance captured the collision, none of the cameras clearly captured the driver’s face or his license plate. A witness chased after the defendant and confronted him. Eventually, the license plate information and cell phone video taken by the witness helped police locate the defendant and arrest him.

“DUI and drugged drivers have taken so many innocent lives this year and while every loss is devastating, the senseless DUI murder of a 1-year-old child is beyond deplorable,” DA Summer Stephan said. “It is also unconscionable that the driver fled the scene, but thanks to the courage and concern of the good Samaritan neighbor who witnessed the crime and recorded the driver and the license plate and provided the information to police, the defendant was brought to justice. Our specialized DUI homicide team worked with San Diego Police Department investigators to present the case to a jury in order to pursue justice. Let this be a warning that drinking and driving can not only take a life but can end with a life prison sentence.”

Because Angeles Vargas had been convicted of a DUI charge previously, he signed a form known as a Watson advisement. The purpose of the Watson advisement is to create a legal record that a defendant is aware of the dangers that DUI poses not only to oneself, but to others. If a person is involved in another DUI in the future, and that DUI leads to an accident that injures or kills someone, they cannot claim that they didn’t understand the consequences. Legally, this means that a defendant can be tried for second-degree murder in a circumstance like this case.

Deputy District Attorney Hailey Williams prosecuted this case.

4S Ranch Man Duped Friends in Ponzi Scheme; Additional Victims Sought

San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan announced felony charges today against 52-year-old Rodolfo Villareal of 4S Ranch, who is suspected of engaging in a Ponzi scheme with
multiple victims he befriended.

Villareal was charged with two counts of securities fraud, three counts of grand theft and one count of forgery, for his role in stealing $282,500 from two victims. He pleaded not guilty today
at arraignment and was ordered to not solicit or receive money for investment or loan opportunities. If convicted, he faces a maximum exposure of 10 years and eight months in prison.

“Bilking people you developed a friendship with is betrayal and a serious violation of law that devastates victims emotionally and economically,” DA Stephan said. “If there are more victims of Mr. Villareal, we encourage them to come forward.”

Investors concerned that they may be victims of this defendant are encouraged to submit complaints at: https://www.sdcda.org/preventing/consumer-protection/index

Villareal will next be in court on April 16 for a readiness conference.

This case is being prosecuted by Deputy District Attorney Tiffany Stewart.

DA Stephan Testifies Before Congressional Committee About Strategies to Fight Organized Retail Crime

San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan testified in Washington, D.C. today before the House Sub-Committee on Counterterrorism, Law Enforcement and Intelligence, providing her perspective on the increasing crime of organized retail theft. At a hearing titled, “From Festive Cheer to Retail Fear: Addressing Organized Retail Crime,” DA Stephan discussed the scope of the problem in the U.S., the solutions being pursued by law enforcement and success stories in holding retail thieves accountable. Stephan appeared in her capacity as both San Diego DA and President-Elect of the National District Attorneys Association.

WATCH the DA’s full testimony, here.

DA Stephan told committee members there are three key challenges facing prosecutors across the nation who are working to fight organized retail theft:

The evolution of more sophisticated criminal networks. Organized retail theft is no longer just the work of isolated petty criminals. Instead, it has evolved into highly sophisticated operations, often conducted by well-organized networks and coordinated across multiple locations.

An inadequate legal framework. Existing laws and penalties in many states are not sufficient to deter or appropriately punish those engaged in organized retail theft. Many states including California have passed laws that increased the dollar amount of theft that qualifies as a felony and eliminated enhanced consequences for recidivist and habitual offenders.

The need for better coordination. In the past, the lack of coordination and information-sharing among retailers, law enforcement agencies, and other stakeholders has hindered the ability to combat organized retail theft effectively. A continued collaborative and multi-faceted approach is necessary to address this issue comprehensively.

Stephan pointed to laws in several states that raised the threshold of the value of merchandise stolen from retail stores in order to qualify for felony charges.

“Law enforcement and our retailers agree that the increase in retail theft-related incidents has been the direct result of changing laws and penalties for shoplifting,” DA Stephan said. “The message that these deficient laws send is that this is the wild west with no rules or accountability.”

The San Diego County DA’s Office has made prosecuting and preventing organized retail crime a priority. DA Stephan formed a specialized team of prosecutors and investigators to combat organized retail theft and work with businesses to build stronger cases.

Stephan praised Congress for passing the INFORM Act, which became law this year and requires online marketplaces, such as Amazon and eBay, to collect, verify, and disclose certain information from high-volume sellers and provide consumers with means to report suspicious activity.

“This is a step in the right direction to stop organized criminals from selling stolen goods on online marketplaces,” said Stephan said. “It removes the anonymity of the seller and makes it easier for law enforcement to find online sellers of stolen goods and prosecute them.”

Stephan also urged the passage of H.R. 895, the Combating Organized Retail Crime Act of 2023— which would expand federal enforcement of criminal offenses related to organized retail crime and establish an Organized Retail Crime Coordination Center within the Department of Homeland Security.

“The good news is that on both the national and statewide level, there is a commitment to stop organized retail crime. At least 34 states now have organized retail crime laws. It’s important that these laws include increased penalties for those involved in these criminal activities and provisions that enable law enforcement to better investigate and prosecute offenders,” DA Stephan said.

Stephan also relayed her experience to committee members of visiting stores targeted by retail thieves and talking to workers about the trauma and fear that they experience from these brazen crimes. In a recent study, retailers reported an increase in violence and aggression by the criminals committing these crimes. “This is not a victimless crime,” Stephan said.

Gang Boss Sentenced to Life Without Parole for Ordering Murder Hit While in Prison

San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan announced today that defendant and criminal street gang boss Jesus Faraj, 45, was sentenced to life without the possibility parole plus 60 years for ordering an execution-style murder of 32-year-old Jimmy Khieu in February 2019.

On Super Bowl Sunday, 2019, Khieu was shot through the head and left for dead in a drainage ditch in the Fox Canyon neighborhood of San Diego. There were no initial suspects and an investigation ensued, leading to the arrest, charging, and convictions of Faraj and three other defendants who worked at Faraj’s behest to track and kill the victim.

“This defendant is a ruthless criminal who casually ordered a murder from his prison cell,” DA Stephan said. “This case demonstrates that gang violence has a long and far reach of destruction leaving wounds in our community that last a lifetime. We will never stop fighting to make neighborhoods safe from the scourge of gang violence.”

Faraj was the leader of one biggest criminal street gangs in San Diego. While in prison for nearly 20 years on other charges, he rose through the ranks of the gang. At the time of the murder, Faraj used mobile phones from a prison cell to routinely orchestrate criminal activity in San Diego. This included obtaining and distributing large quantities of drugs and guns to put onto the streets of what he considered his neighborhood in order to obtain money, power, and control of the neighborhood. He was feared by many and had loyal gang members ready to do his bidding on the streets.

Apart from the murder, Faraj demonstrably ordered assaults and kidnappings of other victims that were captured on video and introduced in the trial. Ultimately, the jury found that Faraj planned the murder of Jimmy Khieu, which was perpetrated by another longstanding gang member who pled guilty to first degree murder before the trial. This case highlights the commitment to violence and terror that gang leaders show and how much of an impact they have in our community, even while incarcerated.

On November 29, co-defendant and shooter Peter Burgos was sentenced to 29 years in prison. He pleaded guilty to first-degree murder with a gun and admitted the murder was to benefit the gang. Co-defendant Steven Chavez was sentenced to 17 years in prison on July 14 after pleading guilty to voluntary manslaughter to benefit the gang. Co-defendant Kristin Zarate was sentenced to 12 years in prison in October 2022 after pleading guilty to voluntary manslaughter to benefit the gang.

This case was prosecuted by Deputy District Attorney Oscar Hagstrom with the support of his team.

 

Gang Member Charged in Shooting that Left Young Woman Paralyzed

San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan announced today that an attempted murder charge has been filed against Juan Diaz Velazco, 19, in connection with a gang shooting that left an innocent 17-year-old female bystander paralyzed. Diaz Velazco is also charged with assault with a firearm and other gun charges. He was arraigned and pleaded not guilty. If convicted, he faces 72 years to life in prison. He is being held without bail.

The charges stem from an incident on October 28 in which gang members issued gang challenges to rivals outside of a high school party. Diaz Velazco fired the first shots which hit and paralyzed an innocent girl, who was a high school cheerleader. Diaz Velazco was ultimately apprehended after a multiweek extensive investigation conducted by the San Diego Police Department and District Attorney’s Office Gang Units.

“This case demonstrates the destructive consequences of gang violence on neighborhoods and people who want to live in peace,” DA Stephan said. “We will keep fighting to make our neighborhoods safe and hold criminals accountable.”

Diaz Velazco will be in court again on December 12 for a readiness hearing and on December 15 for a preliminary hearing.

This case is being prosecuted by Deputy District Attorney Kyle Sutterley.

 

Gang Member Sentenced in Shooting Death of Alpha Project Security Guard

San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan announced today that defendant Johnny Hill, a member of a criminal street gang, was sentenced to 55 years to life plus an additional 26 years in prison in connection with a 2019 shooting that left one man dead and another injured.

Hill and co-defendant, Floyd Garrett, who will be sentenced on January 22, were found guilty by a jury of second-degree murder with a special allegation of personal gun use causing death, assault with a semi-automatic firearm, and being a felon in possession of a firearm on September 14.

“Our office will never stop fighting to make neighborhoods safe from violence,” DA Stephan said. “Ernest Buchanan Jr. was a beloved member of the Alpha Project family and his own family, and his life was mercilessly taken without justification. San Diego Police Department Detectives working with the DA Gangs Unit put this case together piece by piece in order to obtain justice for the victims and hold the offenders accountable. Although this sentence will not bring back Ernest Buchanan Jr., we hope his family finds a measure of justice in the jury verdict and sentence in this case.”

The Alpha Project homeless shelter, located at 1700 Imperial Ave., lies within territory claimed by ‘Crip’ criminal street gang sets and is an area primarily used for gang related drug sales and acts of violence. Over the past two years, San Diego Police have responded to 6,187 calls involving violence: notably, seven homicides, 298 robberies, 1,280 assaults and 1,800 violent disturbances.

In December 2019, Buchanan Jr., and Dorian Cunningham were security guards for the Alpha Project homeless shelter at 1700 Imperial Ave. On the night of the shooting, the men left in Buchanan’s truck to get a snack during their break. In the meantime, the defendants, members of a criminal street gang, arrived in the area in a white sedan. The City of San Diego’s Environmental Street Cameras and the Alpha Project’s surveillance system captured the defendants as they walked together to a dark alcove across from the shelter and waited. When the victims returned and parked their car, Cunningham walked into the administration trailer and Buchanan followed shortly after walking across Imperial Ave. Together, the defendants fired multiple rounds at Buchanan, and he died shortly thereafter at the hospital. Cunningham was grazed in the leg and did not sustain life threatening injuries. After the shooting, the defendants fled from downtown only six minutes after arriving.

This case was prosecuted by Deputy District Attorney Matthew Carberry with the support of his team.

Defendants Charged with Running Illegal Dispensary Business

San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan announced charges today against four defendants who were illegally selling and distributing products containing marijuana. Jose Delahoz, 55, and Valeria Rada, 42, have been charged with child endangerment, maintaining a place for marijuana to be sold, tax evasion, and possession of marijuana for sale. They were arraigned today in San Diego Superior Court. If convicted of all charges, they face probation up to eight years in prison. Diego Delahoz, 30, and Edgar Delahoz, 29, have been charged with maintaining a place for marijuana to be sold, tax evasion and possession of marijuana for sale. They both face up to four years and four months in prison if convicted of all the charges.

On Wednesday, law enforcement served search warrants at multiple locations that resulted in the seizure of over $1,100,000.00 of mislabeled product containing cannabis in various locations, including a home with young children.

“Illegal marijuana businesses that sell unregulated products are an underground economy that undercuts legal dispensaries who are following the law and undercuts the laws that protect children and teens from the potentially toxic effects of high THC cannabis,” said DA Stephan. “They also put consumers at risk because their products can pose a public health risk. Coordinating with our law enforcement partners, we will continue to hold individuals and these businesses accountable.”

The San Diego Police Department led the investigation, working with the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, Chula Vista Police Department, District Attorney’s Office, and California Department of Taxation Administration.

The investigation focused on a store in Middletown, Canably, which is not permitted to sell marijuana but has been presenting itself as both a storefront and a distributor of products that contained THC, including thousands of edibles like gummies, peanut butter, beef jerky and 300 pounds of loose marijuana. Canably was selling and distributing cannabis and cannabis products within 1,000 feet of a school and residences. Over $2,000 in cash was seized and an initial review of store receipts showed a minimum of $4,000 of credit card sales were made in less than one day in the storefront. Additional searches were conducted in Rancho San Diego and Chula Vista at another smoke shops that purchased cannabis products from Canably.

The residence of Canably’s owners was also searched and 320 pounds of loose cannabis, $5658 in cash, more than 10,000 in concentrates and more than 5,000 edibles were seized. In total, more than $1,000,000.00 in cannabis product was seized from the home. The product was found in an attached garage converted into a workspace for the Canably business and a play area for the family’s three children, ages10 months, five years, and 14 years.

A shop called Elevated Smoke in Pacific Beach was also searched, resulting in a seizure of cannabis, a ghost gun, marijuana edibles and concentrates. The smoke shop had been selling edibles purchased from Canably and was operating within 1,000 feet of Pacific Beach Middle School.

“We’re being told by health professionals at Rady Children’s Hospital that they’re seeing an 800 percent increase in marijuana-related overdoses in children in recent years which is unacceptable,” said DA Stephan. “Edibles in particular pose a danger to young people who are being marketed to or find products like pot gummies and aren’t aware of the overdose danger. It is unconscionable that parents would store such a large amount of marijuana in an area accessible to their children.”

This case is being prosecuted by Deputy District Attorney Matthew Greco of the DA’s Narcotics Division.

International Fraud Awareness Week

San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan is encouraging the public to report suspected fraud this week during International Fraud Awareness Week. Insurance Fraud is the second-largest economic crime in the U.S. and costs California residents about $15 billion a year. To combat this problem, the District Attorney, in conjunction with the California Department of Insurance, is shining a spotlight on this issue to minimize the impact of fraud by promoting anti-fraud awareness and education.

In 2022, the DA’s Insurance Fraud and Workplace Justice Division filed criminal charges against 202 defendants and obtained 171 convictions for various insurance fraud offenses. As a result of these convictions, nearly $30 million in restitution was ordered for victims, including individuals, insurers, and state agencies.

“Committing fraud is a serious financial crime that affects seniors, workers, employers along with business owners and corporations,” DA Stephan said. “When insurance prices spike because of unscrupulous actors and legitimate businesses can’t compete because of fraudulent businesses violating the law, or when employees are left vulnerable without the benefits they are entitled to, ultimately insurance fraud is felt by everyone.”

If you see, hear, or know of an insurance fraud scam happening in your area, please contact the DA’s Office through the Insurance Fraud hotline at (800) 315-7672 or at sdconnect@sdcda.org, or contact the California Department of Insurance at (800) 927-4357. To report fraud related to real estate, you can contact the DA’s Real Estate Fraud hotline at (619) 531-3552. To report any other type of fraud or criminal activity, please contact your local law enforcement agency.

The Insurance Fraud and Workplace Justice Division is dedicated to eradicating insurance fraud, whether it relates to workers’ compensation, automobile insurance, life insurance, or fraud in the healthcare industry. It also prosecutes other crimes uncovered during insurance fraud investigations, including wage theft, tax evasion and even labor trafficking.

The Insurance Fraud and Workplace Justice Division also does outreach campaigns throughout the year, including during the month of November to coincide with Fraud Week. The campaign consists of digital, print, radio, television, DMV offices, transit stops, bus and trolley interiors as well as billboard advertisements to raise awareness about worker’s compensation fraud and auto insurance fraud and how to report it. Attached are some examples of the print outreach campaign.

You can watch the worker’s compensation Fraud public service announcement here in English and Spanish. The auto insurance fraud PSA can be seen here. Funding for this outreach campaign comes from anti-fraud grant programs administered by the California Department of Insurance.

The DA’s Economic Crimes Division is responsible for prosecuting a wide variety of wrongdoing, including computer intrusion, identity theft, investment scams, embezzlements, real estate matters, counterfeit goods, environmental crimes and the theft of public assistance funds. The division also acts to protect consumers and businesses by successfully filing numerous civil cases to prohibit unfair business practices within the marketplace.

Examples of the types of crimes that the Insurance Fraud and Workplace Justice Division prosecutes are:

  • Workers’ Compensation Provider Fraud – When medical and legal providers, including doctors, chiropractors, and lawyers are paying or receiving kickbacks for referrals, billing for services not rendered or overbilling for services provided.
  • Workers’ Compensation Premium Fraud – When a business misrepresents its true payroll, the type of work it performs, or conceals employee injuries to pay lower workers’ compensation premiums. One of the most common premium fraud schemes occurs when employers pay employees in cash without reporting that cash payroll to the Employment Development Department and their insurer. This activity results in $7 billion in lost revenue each year and evasion of approximately $6.5 million in payroll taxes annually. Frequently, employers who commit premium fraud also engage in other crimes, including wage theft, tax evasion, and labor/human trafficking.
  • Workers’ Compensation Applicant Fraud – When employees fake or exaggerate work injuries to collect workers’ compensation benefits, or when employers make false statements to deny benefits to injured workers.
  • Uninsured Employers – Every business in California is required to have workers’ compensation insurance to cover its employees in the event of a workplace injury. These cases are especially important because if an employee is injured at work and their employer does not have workers’ compensation insurance, the employee may have no recourse to get required care and benefits.
  • Auto Insurance Fraud – Fraudulently obtaining payment on an auto insurance policy based on false information such as inflated or faked damages, staged collisions, false claims of vehicle theft and arson. This fraud costs consumers billions of dollars each year in the form of higher insurance premiums.
  • Disability and Healthcare Fraud – This involves fraudulent medical and disability claims and policies, including medical providers who fraudulently bill insurance companies or who divert medications for personal use or sale. Healthcare fraud increases medical costs for everyone.
  • Life and Annuity Fraud – Unscrupulous life insurance agents and others who seek to steal the savings of victims through power-of-attorney abuse, securities fraud, and fraudulent claims on legitimate policies. These scams often target senior citizens, and the impact is life-altering, since seniors do not have the time or opportunity for financial recovery.
  • Workplace Justice Violations – We have developed an innovative approach to the prosecution of wage theft, wage and hour violations, meal and rest break abuses, unfair business practices, tax evasion, and labor trafficking.

In 2022, the Economic Crimes Division filed criminal charges against 177 defendants and obtained 228 convictions. Additionally, from those convictions, defendants were ordered to pay over $4.4 million in restitution.

This division also pursued civil enforcement actions against various businesses for unfair competition or environmental violations. In 2022, the Consumer Protection and Environmental Protection Units completed over a dozen major civil enforcement actions resulting in injunctions to stop the unlawful business practices and statewide monetary relief that included millions of dollars in civil penalties, costs and restitution.

Some examples of the types of cases that the Economic Crimes Division prosecutes are as follows:

  • Real Estate Fraud – This type of crime involves various fraudulent real estate transactions and/or schemes such as the submission of forged loan applications; fraudulent transfers of title of real property; recordation of fraudulent real estate documents; home equity sale contract fraud; and mortgage foreclosure consultant fraud.
  • Computer and Technology Crimes High Tech Task Force (CATCH) – This Unit prosecutes high-technology criminals engaged in crimes where technology is the prime instrumentality of the crime, or where technology is the target of the crime, such as; theft facilitated by technology, theft of technology resources, network intrusions, online harassment and stalking, as well as providing technical and investigative assistance to local law enforcement agencies with respect to digital forensics.
  • Identity Theft – These crimes usually involve criminals acquiring key pieces of someone’s identifying information to impersonate them and commit numerous forms of fraud which include taking over the victim’s financial accounts, opening new bank accounts, purchasing automobiles, applying for loans, credit cards, and social security benefits, renting apartments, and establishing services with utility and phone companies.
  • Complex Theft – These crimes commonly involve embezzlement or investment scams. Embezzlement is the fraudulent appropriation of property by a person to whom it has been entrusted. Instead of using the company’s payroll system or checking or credit card account for legitimate company business, the individual uses these accounts to steal by directing the money to his or her own accounts or to pay for personal expenses. Grand theft schemes take many forms but include scams where the perpetrator misleads individuals about an investment opportunity and instead the uses the money to support the perpetrator’s lifestyle.
  • Consumer Protection – These cases generally involve a business or an individual taking advantage of consumers. These cases can range from a business failing to warn a consumer that their credit card will be billed on an ongoing basis to a business using scanners that charge an amount over the advertised price to building contractors operating without a license. These cases also include other unfair business practices such as misleading product labeling or false advertising.
  • Environmental Protection – These cases generally involve businesses that violate rules relating to the environment such as hazardous waste disposal, underground storage tank regulations and clean air act statutes.

“If you know of fraud being committed, report it because it’s important to hold accountable those who would break the law,” DA Stephan said.

For information and resources about International Fraud Awareness Week, visit www.FraudWeek.com.

Fatal DUIs Spike Amid COVID-19

Fatal DUI Numbers Remain High

San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan announced today that her office is receiving an $810,000 grant from the California Office of Traffic Safety for the tenth year in a row to prevent and prosecute impaired driving deaths and DUI-drug cases. The grant award comes as San Diego County fatal DUI numbers remain at an all-time high.

In 2022, 33 people were killed in 32 DUI-related crashes. So far in 2023, there have been 25 people killed.

“We have a specialized team of prosecutors and investigators who hold offenders accountable and work to deter impaired driving,” DA Stephan said. “The increase over the last few years of people in our community dying at the hands of impaired drivers is disturbing. As the holiday season approaches, people need to make responsible choices, use ride sharing services and keep their friends and family from getting behind the wheel if they are impaired.”

Data shows average blood-alcohol levels of drivers involved in Driving Under the Influence cases remain high at over .18%. Prosecutors say that more than half of individuals being arrested for driving under the influence have both alcohol and drugs in their system—a deadly combination.

The grant will allow the DA’s DUI Homicide Unit to continue its critical work. The unit, which launched in 2014, streamlines complex DUI cases by creating expertise within the DA’s Office. The specialized unit creates uniformity in sentencing among the four adult courthouses. In addition, the unit helps law enforcement adapt to changes in technology by having a designated DA Investigator who is trained in the latest techniques in collision reconstruction. Since its inception, the unit has prosecuted nearly 225 cases and they have received more than $4.5 million in funding from the Office of Traffic Safety.

Funding will also be used to:

  • Provide training for select prosecutors to become experts in DUI-drug cases.
  • Provide training for prosecutors and investigators through California’s Traffic Safety Resource Prosecutor Program as well as San Diego County specific training
  • Host quarterly regional meetings with law enforcement partners to improve DUI investigations and prosecutions.

In 2022, the District Attorney’s Office filed 5,682 DUI cases, including 370 DUI drug cases and 151 DUI cases in which both alcohol and drugs were present in the driver’s system. So far this year, the DA’s Office has filed 4,635 DUI cases including 253 DUI drug cases and 219 combined alcohol and drug impairment cases. Many of these numbers are significant increases from years past.

Funding from the California Office of Traffic Safety is provided through the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

DA Issues Warning After Elderly Woman is Scammed Out of $200,000

San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan announced criminal charges today against a man for his role in a scam that targeted an elderly San Diego woman who was convinced to pay over $200,000 in cash to the thieves over several weeks. Zhi Gao, a 22-year- old resident of San Gabriel, CA, was arrested Thursday evening when he went to the victim’s home to pick up a cash payment from her. He has been charged with attempted grand theft, attempted receiving stolen property, and resisting an officer in the performance of their duties. Gao is believed to be part of a larger theft ring and a courier for the criminal network.

[WATCH LIVE STREAM OF NEWS CONFERENCE, HERE]

“We are alerting our community about the most common and current scam that is stealing precious life savings from our seniors,” DA Stephan said. “This egregious case of financial elder abuse is a compelling reminder to seniors and their families to be aware of the warning signs of a scam and reach out for help. These ruthless scammers targeted a vulnerable elderly woman through a sophisticated fraud scheme. The case should also serve as a warning to scammers who are running such criminal enterprises that we’re working together in a first-of-its-kind Elder Justice Task Force and having increased success in tracking them down and putting them behind bars.”

The victim, a 65-year-old woman with significant health issues, fell victim to two of the most popular scams that law enforcement is encountering. The first, was a “tech support scam.” The victim’s computer froze and then a pop-up message from Microsoft appeared on her screen providing a phone number to call to fix her computer. The victim called the phone number and the scammer, pretending to be from Microsoft, solicited an initial $120 from the victim to fix her computer.

After believing she was dealing someone from Microsoft, the scam shifted to the “banking scam.” The scammers contacted the victim again pretending to be from Chase Bank claiming there was now fraud on her account and that all the money in her bank accounts was at risk. The scammers told her to pull money out of her existing bank accounts so that the money could be secured in a safe account while the fraud division investigated the case for her.

Over the last few weeks, the victim made several withdrawals of between $20,000 and $30,000, ultimately losing more than $200,000 of her life savings. The victim’s family was doing routine checks of her financial accounts when her children noticed the suspicious activity and reported the case to the San Diego Police Department. Police worked with the victim and her family to set up another cash pickup at which point Gao was taken into custody when he arrived at her residence to pick up the package.

The scammers are part of a transnational criminal network that use couriers to pick up money from victims of elder scams. Several times a week, couriers come into San Diego County to collect funds from elderly victims who are scammed out of their life savings. In the past several months, dozens of scammers have utilized ride share companies such as Uber and Lyft to pick up fraudulently obtained funds while other suspects such as Gao appear to be working directly for the criminal syndicates. Couriers most commonly pick up money from victims and deliver it to another person in the network, or they convert the cash to cryptocurrency and send it out of the country. In most cases, once the money is sent by the victims, it cannot be recovered.

“The increase in tech support scams targeting our most vulnerable citizens is alarming,” said FBI Special Agent in Charge Stacey Moy. “The FBI is committed to working with our federal, state, and local partners to bring to justice anyone caught defrauding our elder population.”

The case is being investigated by the San Diego FBI Elder Justice Task Force (EJTF) which is comprised of the DA’s Office, FBI, U.S. Attorney’s Office, Adult Protective Services, The Law Enforcement Coordination Center (LECC), and local law enforcement agencies. Working together, the task force has created systems to connect the dots of financial elder abuse crimes in San Diego and hold perpetrators accountable.

Last year, the task force identified 1,800 reported victims of financial scams, representing about $49 million in losses for San Diego County. Authorities believe the number is much higher since many victims do not report their losses. Of grave concern is that the trend of losses is increasing. In 2023 so far, reported losses have already exceeded $75 million.

The District Attorney’s Office is warning the public that if you or anyone you know is contacted by someone claiming to be from company or law enforcement agency asking you to withdraw large sums of cash, wire money, purchase gift cards or use cryptocurrency, it is a scam. Stop communicating immediately and talk to your family members before sending any money. In addition, do not ever let anyone install remote access software on your computer or devices. Scammers always tell their victims that loved ones will be in danger, money will be lost, or that someone will get in trouble if they speak up and talk to anyone about the scam.

If you or somebody you know has been the victim of any fraud or scam, please report the case to your local law enforcement agency and to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) at https://www.ic3.gov/ If you are concerned and suspect anyone you know may be the victim of any type of elder abuse, you can make a referral to Adult Protective Services by calling 1-800-339-4661.