HOUSTON – Houston police and the Harris County District Attorney have made an arrest in an international cyber-scam that bilked unsuspecting, mostly elderly victims out of more than $1 million.
Asuncion Peppers, 74, a retired medical technician knows that first hand. She was bilked out of her life savings.
“I got sick for two weeks from this whole thing. It was just horrible,” Peppers said.
Hackers contacted her on Facebook, pretending to be one of her Facebook friends. She was told she was eligible for a government grant of almost one million dollars. All she had to do was send a check to pay taxes.
“They were convinced they were getting grant money,” said Harris County prosecutor Keith Houston.
Houston believes the scammers were operating from Nigeria, defrauding senior citizens in the U.S. and around the world.
Before Peppers realized she was being conned, she sent checks totaling $87,000 hard-earned money.
“I worked three jobs actually to put some money away. And this was taken away from me and it hurts me really, really bad,” she said.
Investigators said Peppers’ money didn’t immediately go to the scammers. It was routed here to Harris County first to be laundered, allegedly by 65-year-old Joe Reyes who washed the funds through several local bank accounts for a fee, prosecutors said.
“He was receiving funds from scams and then converting them into Bitcoin to send back to the scammers,” Houston said.
Peppers and her husband are just two of 38 victims bilked out of more than $1.3 million before the fraud was discovered. And there may be more.
Reyes is now charged with money laundering and other charges that could send him to prison for years. And Asuncion Peppers is facing a much bleaker retirement.
“That was my life savings -- $87,000 is a lot of money. And that was it. That was the loss of my money, I don’t have any more money,” she said.
Investigators said scams like this are organized crime on a global scale. The FBI estimates that in Harris County alone, they generate up to three hundred million dollars annually.