Law enforcement authorities served nine warrants in eight states and arrested 20 people in an international fraud and money-laundering investigation late last week.
The so-called "Grandmother Scam" has tricked at least 15,000 people into shelling out more than $300 million. One of them was a retired school teacher living in National City, California.
Beth Baker, 86, fell victim to the scam artists two years ago, according to San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis.
Within one week, Baker gave criminals $64,000 of her life savings.
Baker's case is part of the first-of-its kind nationwide takedown. The Justice Department announced charges Thursday against 61 defendants in the United States and abroad in connection with call center operations based in India.
Callers posing as tax and immigration agents threaten arrest, deportation or other punishment unless money is sent to help clear up what they say is a deportation warrant or to cover supposedly unpaid income taxes.
In Baker's case it was her grandson who the caller said was in trouble in Peru and needed bail money. Then he needed money for an attorney, the callers told her.
Each time, Baker went to stores around San Diego County to purchase MoneyPak cards of $1,000 each. She would then go back home and wait for the call so she could relay the numbers from the back of the card to the man on the other end of the phone.
“If there’s one thing to cause a grandmother to do something she wouldn’t ordinarily do it’s to protect her grandchildren,” her son, Jim Baker explained Monday in San Diego.
The federal government says scams like the so-called "Grandmother Scam" that's tricked at least 15,000 people into shelling out more than $300 million.
Dumanis said they believe there are "many, many other local victims."
"Our investigation followed Miss Baker's money as it was laundered through a spiderweb of dozens of co-conspirators across the U.S. and eventually to foreign countries like Iran and India," Dumanis said.
As agents fanned out across the country to make arrests, officials in Washington said they wanted to alert the public that the calls are all part of a scam.
“This crime is not going away. This crime is escalating,” Deputy District Attorney Paul Greenwood said.
Investigators want the public to know the U.S. government never demands money be loaded onto prepaid cards.
“One of the problems we face is that too many victims who fall for a scam never report it because they’re too embarrassed,” Greenwood said.
Baker said children should take his family's experience and talk with their parents to avoid anyone else falling victim. He said his mother had missed some visits with his father while she was driving around collecting the cards. That could've been a clue for him as to what was going on.
Also, he was grateful to a bank manager who pulled his mother aside when she asked for a $14,000 loan - something very out of character for her.
The bank manager started asking her questions. That led to the realization that Baker had fallen victim to a scam.
The indictment, which was issued last week in Houston, charges the defendants — which include five call centers — with crimes including wire fraud, money laundering and false impersonation of an officer of the United States.
Greenwood said federal officials should provide more grants and other resources to local law enforcement officers to help uncover more victims in these types of scams.