One man and two women have been arraigned on federal charges of defrauding elderly Latino women by convincing the victims they needed financial assistance to cash purported winning lottery tickets.
The three defendants — Luisa Camargo, 38, Mercedes Montanez, 68, and Tito Lozada, 49 — entered pleas of not guilty in the United States District Court in downtown Los Angeles on Monday, Nov. 25. Trial was set for Jan.14; all three remain in custody without bond.
A federal grand jury indictment returned on Nov. 12 charges a total of four defendants with conspiracy to commit wire fraud for their roles in a multi-year scheme that targeted elderly female victims, robbing them of cash and other valuables in a scheme known as the “Latin Lotto Scam.”
The defendants — all Colombian nationals who reside in the Los Angeles area — were arrested in Long Beach and are being held in federal custody without bond after initially being arrested on state charges filed by the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office. After the United States Attorney’s Office filed a criminal complaint in late October, the three defendants in Los Angeles were transferred to federal custody on November 5.
The fourth defendant — Maria Luisa Henao, 43, who recently became a US citizen — was arrested in San Diego and arrived in Los Angeles on November 18, when she was arraigned on the indictment. Henao pleaded not guilty, was ordered held without bond, and was ordered to stand trial on Jan. 14, 2020.
The four defendants are linked to at least 11 incidents in which an older woman was approached by a combination of the defendants who falsely claimed that one of the co-conspirators had a winning lottery ticket and needed help cashing the ticket.
As part of the scheme outlined in court documents, the defendants pretended to call lottery officials, who actually were co-conspirators. The purported lottery officials falsely confirmed to victims that they were looking at winning lottery tickets, but the funds would be released only if a deposit or fee was paid in advance.
At that point, another defendant engaged with the victim and, knowing the lottery ticket was worthless, would offer to help cash the ticket. This allegedly served to encourage victims to contribute money or jewelry for the ticket’s deposit or fee. The defendants would then drive the victims to their homes and/or to their banks so the victims could get money and other valuables.
The defendants falsely told victims that other people agreed to contribute money to fully fund the ticket’s deposit or fee, and then dropped victims outside a random residence where the defendants falsely claimed the remainder of the funds would be delivered. At that point, the defendants would flee with the victim’s money, jewelry, and other valuables.
The indictment specifically charges the defendants with defrauding six victims; however, the Major Theft Task Force in Los Angeles and its partners have linked the defendants to at least 11 incidents since 2017 in the Southern California communities of Long Beach, Maywood, Baldwin Park, Hawaiian Gardens, Fontana, Lakewood, San Pedro and Chula Vista. One incident allegedly took place in the Bay Area city of Vallejo.
“This was an organized group that singled out older women for the sole purpose of ripping off these vulnerable victims with bogus promises of a big payday,” said United States Attorney Nick Hanna. “While law enforcement will do everything possible to bring criminals like this to justice, this case should serve as a reminder to potential victims and their family members that no one should ever pay an upfront fee in relation to any prize, sweepstakes or lottery.”
“Our elderly community is often a convenient and lucrative target for con artists and, while we’ve charged some of the perpetrators in this case, we know many others are at work to take their place,” said Paul Delacourt, the Assistant Director in Charge of the FBI’s Los Angeles Field Office. “Educating ourselves, as well as our aging family members and friends, is crucial so that they can take precautions and avoid victimization.”
“Not in our City,” said Los Angeles Chief of Police Michel Moore. “We will collaborate with our law enforcement partners at all levels and across jurisdictions to ensure this scam targeting elderly victims comes to an end.”
The indictment also names defendant Lozada in a separate count charging him with possessing device-making equipment, commonly known as a credit card reader/writer and used to replicate credit cards to commit fraud and identify theft.
If convicted of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, each defendant would face a statutory maximum penalty of 20 years in federal prison.