The Manhattan DA’s office is investigating an elaborate scam that cost an 81-year-old UES man over $2.6 million, a crime first reported by Straus News in late October.
A call from Our Town set the DA’s investigation in motion.
The victim said that beginning on March 21 this year, a man claiming to be “Saul Banenson” told him that he was under investigation for drug dealing and money laundering because his Social Security Number has been used to transfer money into Mexico to rent a car packed with cocaine. The only way to avoid dire consequences, “Banenson” warned, was for the victim to pay up. The victim proceeded to send a total of $2,694,293 to his extortioners over the next six months, in the form of seven wire transfers to Zou Wei and Ling Yachao and two checks to Jennifer Stewart at Hoinski Way in Ansonia, CT 06401.
Although the NYPD took record of the crime and provided information to Straus News’ Crime Watch column, the NYPD did not immediately refer the case to the Manhattan DA’s Investigation Division. It was Straus News Manhattan editor-in-chief Keith Kelly who broke the news to them by email two weeks after the scam was first reported. The Manhattan DA’s office confirmed on November 15 that they did not receive any referral before Kelly’s email raised the alarm and are now proceeding with an investigation.
“Our office actively investigates financial crimes and elder abuse, and while this has not been referred to our Investigation Department prior to your email, we are connecting with the NYPD regarding this complaint,” said a Manhattan DA spokesperson.
Scammers are using increasingly sophisticated methods to squeeze money from their victims, who are disproportionately elderly. One of their tricks involves posing as company representatives and demanding customers to pay nonexistent fees. The practice has become so widespread and serious that companies like Con Edison are ramping up their anti-fraud activities and sending out warning notices.
“As scammers become more imaginative, we want our customers to know they can empower themselves,” said Michele O’Connell, Con Edison’s senior vice president, Customer Operations. “A customer who receives a demand for immediate payment or feels pressured to give up personal information can stop the scammer by remaining composed and refusing to play along. But it all starts with recognizing scammers’ deceptive tactics.”
Con Edison has advised customers to look for signs of scammers by slowing down before accepting demands, verifying that information provided matches their latest bills, and not to trust callers instructing them to make immediate payments or pay in bitcoin, prepaid cards, or third-party payment apps.
According to the Federal Trade Commission, New Yorkers have lost $275.3 million across 78,743 fraud reports in 2023 as of the end of September. This number is on track to be just short of the $394.2 million lost throughout all of 2022 across 110,336 reports. Recently, the FTC has found scammers burrowing into their own turf; in July, they made a blog post warning readers about scammers posing as department officials.
New York law enforcement officials and organizations like the AARP are hosting events to raise awareness and signal defiance against the scammers plaguing New Yorkers’ phones, computers, and pocketbooks. Beginning in June, NYS Attorney General Letitia James and AARP New York have been sponsoring 27 “Fight Fraud. Shred It!” events across the state, in which attendees destroy old sensitive documents. “There’s no better time to take stock of obsolete documents with identifying information and shred them safely,” said AARP New York State Director Beth Finkel at the inaugural event. “We’re empowering New Yorkers to fight back against fraudsters with these popular shredding events.”
Victims of scam and fraud can call the Manhattan DA’s Financial Frauds Bureau at (212) 335-8900. Additionally, seniors who have been the victim of a crime can call the Elder Abuse Unit at (212) 335-9007 or email EAU@dany.nyc.gov.