TAMPA — A Ruskin woman was told she’d be arrested for money laundering if she didn’t turn over her life savings. A Pasco County woman was told her finances had been compromised and transferred to a U.S. Treasury agent.
But there was no genuine arrest threat or agent.
The women were targets of what’s known as an impersonator scam, a form of fraud that in recent years has commonly targeted older victims. Between them, the pair lost more than $900,000, according to a criminal complaint filed Thursday in federal court in Tampa.
The scam spurred tandem investigations from the Hillsborough and Pasco County sheriff’s offices, along with the U.S. Secret Service. The probe culminated this week with the arrest of Pranav Patel, a 32-year-old New Jersey man, who faces a federal wire fraud charge.
The complaint against him details an elaborate scheme that cost the Ruskin woman $170,000, and the Pasco County woman more than $700,000.
The Ruskin woman is identified in the court document with the initials “E.L.” She told investigators she’d handed over several large sums of cash and gold to a man she believed was an officer of the U.S. Department of the Treasury. She made the payments to clear what she was told was a federal arrest warrant charging her with money laundering.
The saga began last summer, when E.L. was contacted several times by someone she believed was from PayPal. She was told she owed the company $550.
She searched online and called what she mistakenly thought was PayPal’s customer service number. She spoke with a man who said his name was “Andrew Roberts,” the complaint states. He asked for her PayPal account information. When she was unable to provide it, the man transferred her to someone else, who said he worked for their “legal team.”
A different man then introduced himself as “Alvaro Bedeyn.” He said he was a lawyer with the Federal Trade Commission and she could search his name on Wikipedia. It is unclear if the man may have been impersonating Alvaro Bedoya, whom President Joe Biden appointed to the FTC in 2022.
The impersonator told the victim she had an arrest warrant and that the only way to clear it was to liquidate her bank accounts and turn the money over to a Treasury agent, according to the complaint.
She withdrew $20,000 from a Bank of America savings account. She texted a picture of the cash and a receipt showing the total amount to a person she believed was a Treasury courier, according to the complaint. She then got a call. She was told to stay on the phone while a car pulled into her driveway. She was instructed to place the cash package into the car’s back seat, and then go back inside. The person in the driver’s seat never spoke with her and never got out of the car, the complaint states.
About 30 minutes later, she received a text with a photograph showing a fake U.S. Treasury check made out to her for $20,000, according to the complaint.
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The scammer stayed in touch with the victim in the weeks that followed. He asked when she would leave the house and when she would be home.
A few weeks after the first transaction, the victim withdrew $20,000 from a Mid America Bank savings account. She again stayed on the phone while the courier drove to meet her and collect the money.
More transactions followed. The victim closed out her life insurance policy and a Roth IRA and transferred the funds to a new bank account she was told to create. She visited a gold dealer in Sarasota and traded cashier’s checks for gold bars, which she then gave to the courier.
Another transaction, for more than $27,000 in gold coins and bars, was set for Nov. 30. But before that, she notified the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office. Deputies came to her home Nov. 29.
The final transaction was rescheduled for Dec. 6, under the watch of law enforcement.
That day, Pasco County sheriff’s detectives interviewed a second woman who was a victim of a similar scam.
The complaint identifies her with the initials “D.L.” She described a series of transactions involving cash and gold bars with a person she believed was a Treasury agent. Her total loss, the complaint states, was about $732,000.
On Dec. 6, police were watching as the courier texted and convinced the victim to meet him at a Circle K store on U.S. 41 in Ruskin. He pulled up in a red Jeep, according to the complaint. She placed a package in the back seat, as she’d done before. The Jeep drove off.
Cops followed as the Jeep headed up Interstate 75, all the way to State Road 56 in Pasco County. They watched as it pulled into the Wiregrass Mall lot, and parked in front of a J.C. Penney store. They saw the driver open and empty the package, the complaint states. As he pulled out of the parking space, the cops stopped him.
They identified Patel as the driver.
After being read his rights, Patel admitted he’d come to Florida multiple times to collect cash and gold from the victims. He said that he would turn over the proceeds to other people, who were described in the complaint as “unknown.”
Patel said he’d collected money from people in other states, too. He mentioned having gone to North Carolina.
He was booked in the Pinellas County Jail.
Perpetrators of impersonator scams typically pretend to be government officials like FBI agents or Social Security and IRS officers. They confront people with dire warnings or threats of imminent arrest on phony criminal charges unless the victims pay up. Some variations see scammers telling the victims they’ve won a lottery or sweepstakes, but that they must pay taxes or a fee to receive their winnings.
The scams are common enough that federal agencies have issued public warnings about them. The FTC advises people to avoid wiring money or using gift cards, cryptocurrency or a cash app to send funds to someone who says they’re from the government. Real government agencies will never call, email or text to ask for money or personal information, nor will they threaten people with arrest or promise a prize.
People who suspect they are victims of fraud can report it to the FTC at ReportFraud.ftc.gov.