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California: As Scam Artists Adapt, So Does Local DA

Posted on 03/31/24 by Julie Rasicot

San Diego County Deputy District Attorney Scott Pirrello can’t stop thinking about the people he’s met whose lives have been devastated by elder fraud.

“I’m seeing them and hearing them as I fall asleep at night,” he says. “The fact that we have to tell them that there’s nothing that can be done to get their money back or to hold the people accountable. ... That’s what drives me.”

As head of the county district attorney office’s long-standing Elder Abuse Unit, Pirrello prosecutes crimes affecting older people. Four years ago, his unit began targeting elder financial scams — everything from grandparent scams to cryptocurrency fraud — after discovering local police departments weren’t able to investigate these cases even when victims reported they had experienced fraud.

“They’re being told there’s nothing that can be done, and so these cases are not making it to prosecutors’ offices,” Pirrello says.

Nationwide, such crimes have skyrocketed, as crooks’ technological sophistication has grown.

Graphic by Nicolas Rapp
Chart by Nicolas Rapp

In San Diego Count alone, elder fraud resulted in roughly $97 million in losses in 2023, according to the FBI. The Federal Trade Commission says losses reported by adults 60 and older totaled at least $1.6 billion in the U.S. in 2022. That figure doesn’t represent “even a drop in the bucket of what’s actually happening” because of underreporting by people who don’t know they’ve been a crime victim or are too embarrassed to report it, says Kathy Stokes, AARP director of fraud prevention programs. In fact, the FTC estimates fraud losses by those 60 and older could have been as high as $48.4 billion in 2022.

Pirrello and his team are gaining national attention for their efforts, which include helping to develop in 2021 the Elder Justice Task Force, involving the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office, San Diego County Adult Protective Services, the FBI, the U.S. Attorney’s Office and other agencies. Pirrello says the task force is on the cutting edge of tracking fraud, in part because it gathers law enforcement data in real time. For example, it trains police officers to get from scam victims actionable information, such as phone numbers and email addresses used by scammers.

A tech-support swindle

The task force’s cases involve many of the most common ones in the scam game.

In October 2023, the district attorney’s office charged a 22-year-old man from San Gabriel in a tech-support and banking scam that stole more than $200,000 in cash from a 65-year-old woman who was told the move would protect her funds.

According to the district attorney’s office, the woman’s computer froze and a pop-up message from “Microsoft” provided a phone number to call to fix the problem. It ended with her making several withdrawals of $20,000 to $30,000 after somebody from “Chase Bank” said her account had been compromised. The San Gabriel man was arrested when authorities say he went to the woman’s home to pick up some cash. (Neither Microsoft nor Chase was actually involved.)

A prosecutor for 18 years, New York native Pirrello worked in real estate and technology before heading at age 25 to the University of San Diego for law school.

About 15 years ago, he sought the mentorship of Deputy District Attorney Paul Greenwood, longtime head of the Elder Abuse Unit. Pirrello learned to think outside the box, using such tactics as charging contractors with residential burglary for accepting payment from victims but not performing the contracted work.

“It’s much more than just a career,” says Greenwood, who retired in 2018 and is an elder abuse consultant for AARP. “… It’s having a desire to seek some kind of accountability and some kind of justice for victims that often believe that nobody is going to pay them any attention.”

Pirrello and San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan say the task force can be a national model for fighting fraud. But the job ahead is massive.

“We haven’t even scratched the surface of the things that we could be doing to protect our seniors,” Pirrello says.

Julie Rasicot, a writer and editor in Montgomery County, Maryland, writes regularly for the AARP Bulletin.

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