HARRISBURG – Attorney General Kathleen G. Kane has announced a grand jury investigation has led to charges against four co-conspirators for a scheme that targeted elderly victims throughout the country to steal thousands of dollars in a “Grandparent Scam.”
The scammers allegedly stole at least $162,600 and are accused of attempting to steal approximately $37,325 more. One victim alone, a woman from Texas, was allegedly defrauded of $64,900.
“Today, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania shut down a scam that’s as sinister as it is pervasive,” Kane said. “A nine-month investigation led to charges against four individuals allegedly engaged in the so-called ‘Grandparent Scam.'”
The investigation identified 11 senior citizens in eight states as known victims. The victims’ average age is 79 years and some reside in states as far away as California, Texas and Washington.
The full scope of their scheme is still unknown and the investigation is ongoing.
The “Grandparent Scam” is one of the more common scams targeted at the elderly. The Federal Trade Commission estimates that people across the country have been scammed out of $42 million as a result of “Grandparent Scams.”
Those charged face two counts of corrupt organizations and one count each of criminal conspiracy, identity theft and theft by deception for their role in the scheme. Those include:
–Spencer Compas, 29, 2113 S. Etting St., Philadelphia;
–Witson Lavilette, 38, 3901 Roosevelt Blvd., Philadelphia;
–Johanne Wesh, 37, 1428 Easton Rd., Abington, Montgomery County; and
–Kens Wesh, 38, 1446 E. 86th St., Brooklyn, NY.
Compas, Lavilette and Johanne Wesh were taken into custody and are each being held on $1 million bail. They are all scheduled for a preliminary hearing on Aug. 21. An arrest warrant is still active for Kens Wesh, who is believed to be in New York City. The New York City Police Department is assisting in locating him for arrest.
According to the grand jury presentment, the investigation began following a complaint from a 77-year-old man identified in the presentment as Thomas I. from California. He said he’d been scammed out of thousands of dollars by a caller claiming to be an attorney for his grandson who supposedly was arrested for a DUI in Philadelphia. The caller said the money was for bail and attorney’s fees.
After receiving $6,600 from the victim, the scammers called again and said they would need an additional $10,000. The victim then realized he had been scammed and that his grandson was never arrested.
Thomas I. then notified law enforcement and an undercover sting was initiated. On Dec. 11, 2013, a package purportedly containing $10,000 from the victim was delivered to a home on West Albanus Street in Philadelphia, utilizing a law enforcement agent posing as a UPS carrier. Compas was waiting to receive the package at the address and was apprehended.
Compas told the grand jury that Lavilette asked him to provide addresses in Philadelphia for the delivery of “paper,” which he knew actually meant money. According to the grand jury presentment, Kens Wesh recruited Lavilette and his sister, Johanne, to be part of the scam.
“This swindle creates false fears among our senior citizens that their loved ones are in some kind of serious trouble and urgently need their help,” Kane said.
“They then dupe these unsuspecting, well-intentioned victims into transferring money to them. These seniors just wanted to help, but all the scam artists intended to do was to steal,” she said.
“Fortunately, these four won’t be stealing from anyone for a long time to come. But they are not the only ones out there preying on people’s fears, and their scam underscores the need for vigilance.”
The Office of Attorney General is seeking other victims and believes there could be many more across the country.
Anyone who believes that they were scammed by these individuals after sending (or being asked to send) money to an address in Philadelphia, Abington (Montgomery County) or Bronx, NY, should contact the Office of Attorney General’s Organized Crime Section in Norristown at 610-631-5937.
Kane thanked the Philadelphia Police Department, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, Pennsylvania State Police, Auburn (California) Police Department, Kansas City Police Department, Baton Rouge Police Department and the Toledo (Iowa) Police Department for their assistance in this investigation.
“Senior citizens are all too often targeted by con-artists,” Kane said. “Today’s arrests should be a loud and clear notice that if you try to victimize our senior citizens you are going to pay a steep price.
“Because it has become so common, police departments around the state are constantly on the lookout for this kind of activity. Every citizen can help them do their job more effectively by reaching out to law enforcement if they suspect they or a loved one are being victimized,” she said.
The Office of Attorney General’s Bureau of Consumer Protection recognizes senior citizens as the most prevalent targets for most scams facing consumers. To help combat this, Kane’s revamped Education and Outreach Section offers a program to the public called “Senior Crime Prevention University.” The section has helped educate nearly 15,000 seniors across the Commonwealth since Kane took office.
The Office of Attorney General also maintains a toll-free Elder Abuse Hotline: 1-866-623-2137.