San Gabriel Man Charged with Defrauding SD Woman, 65, Out of Over $200K in Life Savings

Photo by Andrew Hoyer via Flickr

A man who allegedly took part in scamming a 65-year-old San Diego woman out of more than $200,000 of her life savings has been arrested and charged by prosecutors, it was announced Tuesday.

Zhi Gao, 22, of San Gabriel, was arrested last Thursday after allegedly arriving at the victim’s door to pick up a delivery of cash.

Prosecutors say the woman was manipulated by scammers to make major cash withdrawals from her bank and hand her money to Gao and his co-conspirators over the course of several weeks.

According to San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan, the scam began with a pop-up message that appeared on the woman’s computer. Believing that the message originated from Microsoft, she called a phone number displayed on the pop-up to receive help with her computer, which was frozen. The woman paid scammers $120 to fix her computer.

The scam later moved to a banking-related fraud, in which scammers pretended to be associated with Chase Bank. This time, they alleged that the bank had been alerted to fraud on her account.

In order to protect her money, she would have to withdraw it from her account and hand it over to the co-conspirators “so that the money could be secured in a safe account while the fraud division investigated the case for her,” Stephan said.

The victim made multiple withdrawals ranging from $20,000 to $30,000 each time, the DA’s Office said, and gave the cash to couriers who showed up on her doorstep.

Her family eventually caught wind of the suspicious financial activity and contacted police.

Gao was arrested during a sting operation in which he was due to pick up another $30,000 from the victim, prosecutors said.

He faces up to two years and six months in state prison if convicted of charges that include attempted grand theft, attempted receiving stolen property, and resisting arrest.

Stephan called the case an “egregious case of financial elder abuse” and “a compelling reminder to seniors and their families to be aware of the warning signs of a scam and reach out for help.”

The scams employed in this case were among the most common perpetrated against seniors, she said.

FBI Special Agent in Charge Stacey Moy said fraud schemes targeting the elderly are on the rise, with the highest losses and number of victims present in California.

In San Diego County, elder fraud losses have eclipsed $75 million this year. Last year, 1,800 victims were identified in the county, representing over $49 million in losses.

Stephan said those numbers are likely an underreporting of the true figures, as many victims do not come forward out of shame and embarrassment.

“Victims of elder scams feel ashamed. They feel that they’ve been duped. But understand they have nothing to be ashamed of,” Stephan said.

She urged anyone who suspects they’ve been a victim of a scam to report it quickly in order to increase the likelihood of recouping the stolen funds.

She also said seniors should be on the lookout for supposed company representatives asking them to withdraw cash or send them money, and to first talk to family members or other trusted individuals.

Gao was slated to be arraigned Tuesday, but his hearing was postponed due to the unavailability of a Mandarin interpreter at the courthouse. He remains in custody on $125,000 bail.

City News Service contributed to this article.