BJay Pak, U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Georgia (Photo: John Disney/ALM) BJay Pak, U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Georgia (Photo: John Disney/ALM)

Five defendants have pleaded guilty to conspiracies to commit mail fraud and money laundering in a $3.5 million sweepstakes scam that targeted older people and transferred their money to offshore accounts, U.S. Attorney Byung J. “BJay” Pak said Wednesday.

“These defendants stole the life savings of dozens of elderly victims and received more than $3.5 million,” Pak said in a news release. “These schemes unfortunately are all too common and citizens should be wary of contests that require upfront payments to receive a prize.”

This case is being investigated by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations. Assistant U.S. Attorneys Kelly K. Connors and Cassandra J. Schansman are prosecuting the case, which the release said is connected to the Department of Justice’s “Elder Justice Initiative” targeting financial crimes and abuse against seniors.

“Scammers—whether U.S.-based or abroad—who mistakenly believe they can avoid accountability for their criminal actions by transferring ill-gotten proceeds outside the country should know they are not immune from federal prosecution,” said Nick Annan, special agent in charge of ICE Homeland Security Investigations in Atlanta. “This case shows an international border is no defense for those who defraud senior citizens, and HSI is committed to using its unique cross-border authority to investigate and hold accountable persons who commit such crimes.”

From February 2016 through September 2017, dozens of victims, most of whom were elderly, were contacted by telephone and told that they had won a sweepstakes or lottery, Pak said. The victims allegedly were told that they could receive their sweepstakes winnings after they paid various expenses, such as taxes and fees. They were directed to pay the expenses to various companies controlled by the defendants, Pak said.

The payments were made with personal and cashier’s checks mailed to addresses that were linked to mailboxes rented by the defendants. The defendants deposited the checks, totaling more than $3.5 million, into their bank accounts and then transferred the majority of the funds to Costa Rican bank accounts, Pak said.

One of the defendants lives in Costa Rica. The others are from Buford, Georgia. They will be sentenced in November.