Ticos held in lottery ploy that scammed U.S. elderly

Investigators detained seven Costa Ricans who directed call centers here on allegations that they were scammers who used a lottery ploy to defraud the elderly in the United States.

This is believed to be the first time that Costa Ricans have been brought in under such circumstances. A handful of U.S. citizens who engineered such scams have been arrested and extradited to the United States. But Costa Rican law enforcement had not cracked down on such operations.

Diplomats at the U.S. Embassy were known to have been urging action by their Costa Rican counterparts.

The arrests Thursday were in Escazú, Pavas, a call center in Paseo Colón and a lawyer’s office in the center of San José. Prosecutors are seeking a year of preventative detention. Arrested were five men and two women.

The key elements in such frauds is that the individuals making the calls speak nearly perfect English and that by using voice-over-Internet protocol recipients of calls think that the callers are in the United States. Agents said Thursday that voice-over-Internet systems were in use in this case and that many of the individuals were bilingual.

There has been an open secret for years that bilingual Costa Ricans with good accents could make a lot of money participating in such scams. At one point an estimated 200 Costa Ricans were employed in such jobs.

Typically the operation is international. Solicitors in the United States stake out supermarkets and department stores and seek to have older shoppers fill out forms to participate in what they describe as a lottery. Later these forms with telephone
numbers are turned over to callers who announce to the eventual victim that they have won a large sum of money.

The victim must first make deposits into bank accounts or via Western Union for what are described as fees, taxes or insurance.

The sums taken in this case range from $30,000 to $200,000, said the Poder Judicial.

The Poder Judicial said Thursday that the seven persons who were arrested are accused of scamming 80 retirement age individuals in the United States. Those detained were described as leaders of the operation.

A judge declared the case one of organized crime, which gives prosecutors more authority and increased the eventual penalties.

The men were identified by the last names of Céspedes Mora, Gutiérrez Alfaro, Calderón Ruiz, Gonzalo Villalobos and Maden Hernández by the Poder Judicial. A statement identified the women by the last names of Solano Gamboa and Sardí Cedeño.

Western Union has been for years a vehicle for transmission of proceeds of such operations from the United States, but the firm has never said it took any responsibility.

This is the same kind of scam that led to the arrest of Jaime Ligator, a well-known businessman, professional poker player and former casino operator. The U.S. Justice Department said Ligator was extradited Aug. 31, 2009 and pleaded guilty Sept. 1, 2009. He was sentenced on Sept. 22, 2009 to five years in prison, to be followed by three years of supervised release, and ordered to forfeit $2.6 million. He was also ordered to pay $4.2 million in restitution, which was to be paid jointly and severally with his co-defendants, the department said.

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