The warnings come frequently from law enforcement: To avoid being taken in by a scammer, don’t give out personal information over the phone to unfamiliar people.
A federal indictment returned last week appears to show one way in which scammers thrive on the margins of the law.
For a week in March, Bowling Green was allegedly the nexus for a common scam that agencies warn about, at least until police arrested a man who had in his vehicle a safe, a money-counting machine and more than $330,000, cash that authorities say was collected within a week in Bowling Green.
Federal court filings unsealed Thursday accuse Joasch Charles, a Canadian citizen living part-time in Atlanta and part-time in Canada, of conspiring to commit mail fraud.
The indictment names Charles as one of a number of actors in a conspiracy to defraud 17 people out of a total of $201,600 between March 8-13.
The victims had been contacted by the scammers and told their loved ones had been arrested, and were asked to send various amounts of money in cash to secure their release from jail, court records show.
A criminal complaint sworn by FBI Special Agent Andrew Martin said the packages of money were being delivered to empty or abandoned houses and collected by people involved in the scam.
On March 10, the Bowling Green Police Department received complaints from other agencies regarding fraud investigations that outlined the scheme, and officers were provided with the locations and tracking numbers of packages that victims had recently sent.
City police found one of the packages at the front door of a Chippewa Drive residence and conducted surveillance until Charles arrived at the address March 14 and picked up the package.
“Charles was stopped by BGPD and it was determined he had approximately $333,166 (in) cash and a money-counting machine in his vehicle,” Martin said in the complaint.
Charles was brought to BGPD headquarters and interviewed by Martin and BGPD Detective Tim Buss, who learned that Charles had been carrying out the scam in several cities, court records show.
Charles said that, while operating an online business with his girlfriend selling hair products, he secured a $5,000 loan through a Canadian connection from a man he knew as “Phillip.”
After repaying the loan, Charles secured a second loan for $20,000 but was unable to fully repay it, leading “Phillip” to task Charles with various jobs to pay down the debt.
According to the criminal complaint, beginning in February, Charles identified various vacant houses in Atlanta where packages could be delivered, sending a list of addresses to a person working for “Phillip.”
“Charles would then be contacted by someone working for Phillip and would be told on what day he was to pick up a package from which address,” Martin said in the complaint. “He would confirm once he had picked up the package and would then be directed to a location where he would drop off the package. Drop-off locations included addresses in Florida, New York and Boston. After a couple weeks picking up packages in Atlanta, Charles was told to move to a new city.”
The work of picking up packages took Charles to Atlanta, Orlando, Nashville and Bowling Green, according to the federal indictment.
At times, Charles was directed to drop off a package at another empty home and at other times he said he was directed to open the packages and count the money.
“Charles had so much money to count he told the people he was working with he needed a money counter,” Martin said in the criminal complaint. “They directed him to use some of the money from one of the packages to pay for the money counter as well as his hotels while traveling.”
Charles told police the scam entailed him dropping off money at different businesses, using a code word at each location to verify that the money he was leaving was going where the scammers intended, according to court records.
While carrying out the alleged conspiracy, Charles bought a new cellphone each week and communicated with people working with “Phillip” through various apps, receiving new phone numbers and social media account contacts as he went along.
“Once (the contacts) would verify it was Charles, they would direct him to a new city,” the criminal complaint said. “Charles would research empty homes via online searches and provide a list of potential addresses to his contact. He would then wait to hear which address to pick up a package at and what day the package would be delivered.”
According to court records, Charles said he knew the money had been illegally gained and he believed he was laundering money for “Phillip.”
“(Charles) recalled some of the packages having paperwork listing a case number and other packages referencing a bail bonds number,” the criminal complaint said.
The scam described in federal court filings appears to have the same characteristics as what the Federal Trade Commission calls a “family emergency scam.”
Also referred to as a “grandparent scam,” the fraud entails a scammer claiming to be a family member or friend in urgent need of money who asks the victim to send money right away, frequently playing on a victim’s emotions and swearing them to secrecy.
While the alleged fraud uncovered by police locally involved packages of cash, people attempting to pull the family emergency scam often ask their victims to wire money through transfer services, making it harder for victims to recover their money before realizing they have been scammed, according to the FTC.
Last year, victims reported losing more than $667 million to impostors pretending to be government officials, people from a well-known business, a family member or love interest, according to the FTC.
“Phone calls were the No. 1 way people reported being contacted by scammers,” a post on the FTC’s website said. “While most people said they hung up on those calls, those who lost money reported a median loss of $1,000 in 2019.”