Woman Sentenced to Federal Prison for Role in SoCal Grandmothers Swindle

LOS ANGELES (CNS) - A Colombian woman with ties to Los Angeles was sentenced today to 27 months behind bars for her role in a long-running lottery ticket scheme that targeted Latina grandmothers throughout Southern California.

Mercedes Montanez, 69, was also ordered by U.S. District Judge John F. Walter to serve two years on supervised release and pay a share of $190,422 in restitution for defrauding 16 “elderly vulnerable victims,'' according to the U.S. Attorney's Office.

Montanez obtained a visa to enter the United States in 2007 and, because she remained in the country after the visa expired, she will likely be deported, court papers show.

The defendant pleaded guilty in January to a single federal count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud. Three additional defendants also pleaded guilty to the same charge.

Tito Lozada, Maria Henao, Luisa Camargo and Montanez were initially charged in state court with trying to scam a 66-year-old Long Beach woman, but federal prosecutors who took the case said all four defendants were linked to multiple incidents in which older women were targeted and robbed of cash and jewelry in a scheme known as the “Latin Lotto Scam.''

The November federal complaint referenced crimes in Maywood, Long Beach, Baldwin Park, Hawaiian Gardens, Fontana, Lakewood, San Pedro and Chula Vista.

According to prosecutors, the scammers approached Latinas between the ages of 60 and 85 who were alone in public and convinced them that they had a winning lottery ticket but needed help cashing it because they were undocumented. The defendants would then ask the victim for money and promised they would pay her back, including some extra cash, when they cashed in the fake lottery ticket.

To further fool the victim, one of the co-conspirators would pretend to call a purported lottery official who was, in fact, a member of the plot. The schemer, posing as a lottery official, would falsely confirm that the fake ticket in question was a winning ticket that could be released only with a deposit or fee.

The co-conspirators then would drive the victim to her home or bank so that she could get valuable items like jewelry or large sums of cash to pay the sham lottery ticket deposit. Once the schemers had the victim's money or jewelry in hand, they would create a ruse to get the victim out of the car and flee, taking the valuables with them.

The fraud ring attempted to rip off at least four elderly women per day, and were out looking for potential victims for a minimum of four days per week, prosecutors said.

In total, over the course of the nearly 2 1/2-year conspiracy, 16 known victims were defrauded, causing actual losses of at least $190,422, federal prosecutors said.

“This was an organized group that singled out older women for the sole purpose of ripping off these vulnerable victims with bogus promises of a big payday,'' U.S. Attorney Nick Hanna said when the four were charged. “While law enforcement will do everything possible to bring criminals like this to justice, this case should serve as a reminder to potential victims and theirfamily members that no one should ever pay an upfront fee in relation to any prize, sweepstakes or lottery.''

Camargo, Montanez and Lozada are all natives of Colombia living in the Southland. Henao became a U.S. citizen last year after emigrating from Colombia.

Camargo was sentenced last month to the nine months of jail time she already served. Lozada is set for sentencing in September, and Henao will be sentenced on Aug. 31.

Photo: Getty Images

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