A Pawtucket man has pleaded guilty to federal charges that he defrauded at least 20 state residents of $109,675 over a three year period through an international scam aimed at the elderly.
In U.S. District Court Monday, the man, Shawn Whitfield, 48, entered guilty pleas to charges of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, wire fraud, and mail fraud. He is scheduled to be sentenced by U.S. District Court Judge William E. Smith on Sept. 27.
Jim Martin, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney of Rhode Island said the scam was in operation from April 2015 to February 2018. Many of the payments were transferred to Jamaica.
According to court documents, at least 20 people were convinced to send money to Whitfield via packages, money grams, and Western Union wire transfers. One of the payments was a check for $25,000.
The victims, mostly over 55, were persuaded that they have won cash or prizes in a lottery or sweepstakes. They were then told their winnings would not be released to them without upfront payment of taxes or fees.
Westerly Police Chief Shawn Lacey and Hopkinton Police Capt. Mark Carrier said last week that there have been reports of this scam and other similar phone scams periodically throughout the region. Fortunately, they said, the community has remained fairly alert.
In Westerly, one of the most common requests from scammers is that the victim buy and provide PIN numbers for prepaid cards at Walmart. Lacey said the store has sought to identify these type of purchases, especially by the elderly.
"They've really stepped up and will call us or explain to the customer why it isn't a good idea," Lacey said. "They aren't required to do this, but have taken it on themselves to help their customers."
Lacey and Carrier also noted that there may be a higher number of victims than police are aware of, especially because many people are embarrassed and hesitant to come forward.
When it comes to this or other scams, Carrier said the best thing the public can do is to be skeptical of immediate demands for payment, and to stay informed.
The Federal Trade Commission provides regular alerts and informational posts on the latest trends and scams; visit consumer.ftc.gov/blog.
"Its an age-old saying, but it applies: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is," Carrier said.
If you are a victim or know a victim of elder fraud, you can call 1-877-FTC-HELP or go to ftc.gov/complaint. For downloadable Elder Abuse Prevention resources and for information about community outreach programs in Rhode Island, visit the U.S. Attorney’s Office’s Elder Justice Initiative website at justice.gov/usao-ri/elder-justice.