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According to a U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) news release, four Peruvian residents of Lima have been charged with running numerous calls centers that targeted, threatened, and extorted Spanish-speaking victims in the U.S. They have each pleaded guilty and have been given prison sentences to be served in the U.S. following the ruling of District Court Judge Roy K. Altman in Fort Lauderdale.
The accused criminals are 37-year-old Jesus Gutierrez Rojas, 38-year-old Alexandra Podesta Bengoa, 43-year-old Virgilio Polo Davila and 39-year-old Omar Portocarrero Caceres. Each were extradited in April and later pleaded guilty.
“As part of his guilty plea, Gutierrez admitted that he oversaw a series of affiliated call centers in Peru that falsely told Spanish-speaking victims across the United States that they had incurred debts and would suffer various consequences for failure to pay off the debts that they did not, in fact, owe,” reports the DOJ.
Podesta, Polo, and Portocarrero also admitted that they ran and supervised three of the affiliated call centers that contributed to their extortion operation.
“The Department of Justice is committed to identifying and prosecuting foreign-based fraud schemes that target and extort U.S. consumers,” said Assistant Attorney General Jody Hunt of the Department of Justice’s Civil Division. “Today’s prison sentences reflect that those who unlawfully take advantage of U.S. consumers by phone cannot escape justice by placing their calls from abroad. The Department of Justice’s Consumer Protection Branch will continue to work hand-in-hand with our Transnational Elder Fraud Strike Force partners to bring to justice international fraudsters who prey on vulnerable U.S. consumers.”
According to the DOJ, the guilty pleas of Podesta, Polo, and Portocarrero revealed that their call centers went out of their way to target U.S. consumers, specifically the elderly and vulnerable. They used common tactics in elder scams, such as masquerading as authority figures, in this case, attorneys and government representatives.
They then told their victims that “if they failed to pay for or receive a delivery of products and threatened them into paying fraudulent settlements for nonexistent debts.” They used numerous threats to extort their victims, such as lawsuits, negative marks on their credit reports, imprisonment, or immigration consequences if they did not immediately pay for the purportedly delivered products and “settlement fees.” According to the DOJ, this was highly effective in forcing victims to make monetary payments to the fraudsters.
“The U.S. Postal Inspection Service will continue to aggressively pursue and bring to justice international criminal enterprises that prey on our most vulnerable citizens by fraudulently using the U.S. Mail to further their schemes,” said Acting Miami Division Postal Inspector in Charge Lesley Allison.
On August 29, Gutierrez was sentenced to 51 months in federal prison, while Podesta and Polo received 46 months. Portocarrero received a 46-month sentence on July 24. Upon their release, the judge also ordered that each serve three years’ supervised release and will be made to make restitution payments to the victims of their extortion scheme.
During Portocarrero’s sentencing, Judge Altman called the relentless nature of their scheme “shocking” and that it was evident that the defendants went out of their way to exploit “the most vulnerable people in our country.” He characterized their overall conduct as “terribly disgraceful.”
“The reach of our U.S. justice system is long,” said U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida Ariana Fajardo Orshan. “The sentences imposed demonstrate that we are committed to prosecuting those individuals who threaten U.S. consumers no matter where they are located.”
According to the DOJ, Gutierrez, who received the longest prison sentence, occupied the role of general manager in a larger company. He used this position to facilitate the extortion scheme while partnering with Podesta, Polo, Portocarrer. They then corroborated with their associates in Miami to collect the money from their thousands of victims.
“Trial Attorney Phil Toomajian of the Department of Justice’s Consumer Protection Branch is prosecuting the case,” reports the DOJ. “The U.S. Postal Inspection investigated the case. The Criminal Division’s Office of International Affairs secured the extradition of the defendants, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Southern District of Florida, the Diplomatic Security Service, and the Peruvian National Police provided critical assistance.”
This latest sentencing has been made possible due to the passing of the bipartisan Elder Abuse Prevention and Prosecution Act (EAPPA) by President Trump. The DOJ says this law has allowed them to participate in “hundreds of enforcement actions in criminal and civil cases that targeted or disproportionately affected seniors.”