Four Los Angeles-area residents could face up to 20 years in prison for allegedly tricking elderly Hispanic women into giving them cash and other valuables worth thousands of dollars in a scheme dubbed by the U.S. Attorney's Office as the "Latin lotto scam," the agency announced Monday.
The defendants—Luisa Camargo, 38; Mercedes Montanez, 68; Tito Lozada, 49; and Maria Luisa Henao, 43— have been charged with conspiracy to commit wire fraud, according to a statement from the U.S. Attorney's Office.
They are accused of defrauding six women, but federal prosecutors believe there are 11 total incidents dating back to 2017.
The scheme targeted Spanish-speaking women ages 64 to 81 in Long Beach, Maywood, Baldwin Park, Hawaiian Gardens, Fontana, Lakewood, San Pedro, and Chula Vista, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office.
One incident happened in Vallejo in the Bay Area, officials said.
Part of the group allegedly approached Spanish-speaking women on the street and asked for help cashing a winning lottery ticket they said could only be claimed with a deposit or a fee paid in advanced. The defendants then made phone calls to their co-conspirators, who pretended to be lottery officials confirming the story, authorities said.
That's when another member of the group, posing as a stranger, would claim to contribute money or valuables for the deposit or fee, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office. This encouraged victims to chip in their own money or jewelry in exchange for some of the winnings, officials said.
The suspects would then drive the victims to their residence or banks to obtain their "contributions," authorities said. Afterwards, they allegedly brought the victims to random homes where they claimed the rest of the funds would be delivered.
The suspects then fled with the victims' money or possessions.
In one instance, one of the defendants sat crying on the ground to draw a 76-year-old woman, FBI Special Agent Voviette Morgan told reporters at a news conference. That defendant claimed she had trouble cashing a winning ticket due to her immigration status, Morgan said. The victim was eventually driven to her home so she could provide $14,000 in cash and jewelry worth $10,000.
Some of the transactions were conducted in English, but most took place in Spanish, Morgan said. Speaking the victims' native language may have helped the defendants gain their trust, she added.
Authorities said Camargo, Montanez and Lozada were initially arrested in Long Beach on state charges.
The U.S. Attorney's Office subsequently filed a criminal complaint and had them transferred to federal custody on Nov. 5. They were all Colombian nationals, officials said.
An arraignment was scheduled for Monday.
Henao, meanwhile, recently became an American citizen and was arrested in San Diego in November. She has since pleaded not guilty and ordered to stand trial on Jan. 14, the U.S. Attorney's Office said.
All four are being held without bond.
“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,” U.S. Attorney Nick Hanna said in a statement. “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."
The FBI investigated the case with the Los Angeles Police Department and the San Diego District Attorney's Office.