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NORTH BRUNSWICK, NJ—Two county residents were arrested on November 18 on charges they were part of a "nationwide ring that scammed 19 senior citizens out of cash totaling $45,500," according to a press release from the Middlesex County Prosecutor's Office (MCPO).
It was actually a Detective from the Union County Prosecutor’s Office (UCPO), Dennis Donavan, who first discovered the scam after a Maryland resident reported he had been cheated.
“I would like to thank Acting Union County Prosecutor Grace Park and her detectives for their diligence and cooperation in this matter,” said Middlesex County's Prosecutor Andrew Carey.
The scam was based in New Jersey, but cheated residents here, as well as in eleven other states and the District of Columbia between September 2015 and July 2016.
The UCPO's case was referred to Middlesex County "after it was determined that the crimes were being committed in Middlesex County by Middlesex County residents," according to the MCPO release.
The pair arrested was identified as 25-year-old Erica Puello, of Old Bridge, and 24-year-old Amaury Fernandez, of North Brunswick.
Both were charged with theft by deception and conspiring to commit theft by deception, according to authorities.
However, according to the records department at the Middlesex County Jail, both Puello and Fernandez were never admitted to the facility, which could mean they were able to post bail before being taken there.
The MCPO did not mention if bail was set for the duo, or give any clues as to whether or not they remained in custody.
Each of the 19 victims was cheated out of sums ranging from $1,000 to $5,500 during the scam, though the MCPO press release erroneously stated that it was "each of the defendants" who were "cheated."
The MCPO cited an "intensive investigation by Detective Christopher Pennisi and members of the Elder Abuse and Exploitation Team," portraying the latest bust as another key accompishment for the team, which was created by Carey earlier this year.
The word around the County Courthouse is that the team has been bringing a significant number of cases to be tried by their special prosecutions unit.
“The Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office, through its Elder Abuse and Exploitation Team, will continue to aggressively investigate and prosecute scammers who prey on the vulnerable. These arrests are a result of one of several new and wide-ranging investigations conducted by the team,” Prosecutor Carey said.
Those investigations have already included one that busted a man for allegedly convincing an elderly woman to sign over the deed to her New Brunswick home, and another where a city woman was charged with stealing from someone whom she was caring for as a home health aide.
But the most recent investigation has shined a light on the increasingly common problem of scams that target people who can be easily manipulated.
The MCPO website links to an FBI webpage that currently details 22 "common fraud schemes." The schemes don't always target the elderly, but they often make use of the anonymity provided by telephone or email communication.
Sometimes, schemers use information available on the internet to convince people that a friend or relative is in need of help, or even that they have been taken hostage.
In this case, "the investigation determined that the defendants were part of a ring that cheated the victims out of various sums of cash by making bogus phone calls, posing as relatives, friends or attorneys who needed money wired to them quickly," according to the MCPO release.
Carey's office gave the following advice to members of the public regarding telephone scams: "People who receive phone calls seeking money should verify the legitimacy of the call by contacting police from the location of the supposed emergency, or by contacting other friends or relatives who can verify the caller’s information."
The investigation is "active and… continuing," according to the MCPO press statement, which was not sent to this newspaper.
Anyone with information is asked to call MCPO Detective Pennisi at (732) 745-3300.
Charlie is the founder and editor of New Brunswick Today, and the winner of the Awbrey Award for Community-Oriented Local Journalism. He is a proud Rutgers University journalism graduate and a community organizer, and an independent candidate for Mayor of New Brunswick.