In the trade they are known as “chronic responders,” people who can’t resist responding to advertisements for free money and other alleged prizes that are too good to be true. They are often elderly and disabled individuals who cannot afford to bear financial loss, and that vulnerability makes them targets for swindlers looking to make a score. But Vernan Roberson and his team at the Commerce Department’s Office of the Inspector General have figured out a way to con the con-men and give them an offer they literally can’t refuse—a prison sentence.
For the past three years, Roberson and his team have played a key role in “Operation Global Con,” the largest and most expansive multinational enforcement operation ever directed at mass-marketing fraud schemes. The wide variety of scams uncovered by the investigation included foreign currency trading, bogus offers of “pre-approved” credit-card protection, and tax fraud schemes. The operation identified almost 3 million victims, who suffered losses totaling more than $1 billion.
The biggest operation Roberson and his team brought down was a telemarketing scam that used difficult-to-trace Internet phone technology to con millions of dollars from U.S. citizens.
Roberson’s team worked to uncover the source and methods of a sweepstakes operation, in which perpetrators used Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) devices to call their victims. This technology allows users to fake a call’s true point of origin. The con artists identified themselves as employees from the Commerce Department and other federal agencies, told victims they had won prizes ranging in value from $450,000 to $4.5 million, and instructed them to wire insurance fees to claim their winnings. The perpetrators followed up with official-looking correspondence bearing government logos and signatures.
Roberson identified the manufacturer of the phone devices used to make the calls and tracked their purchase by a Miami firm, which resold them to individuals in Costa Rica. He coordinated domestic and international government entities needed to trace the calls, identified hundreds of victims and millions of dollars sent to Costa Rica, and orchestrated the interagency operation that netted multiple arrests.
Roberson also spearheaded the execution of search warrants targeting the suspects, which required coordination among 200 U.S. and Costa Rican law enforcement officers, 17 Costa Rican federal judges, and 24 Costa Rican prosecutors. It resulted in numerous arrests and indictments, along with the seizure of VoIP equipment, $400,000 cash, and a variety of weapons and other incriminating evidence.
Over a period of 18 months, Roberson uncovered roughly $20 million sent by U.S. citizens to Costa Rica. Roberson’s investigative diligence prompted multiple law enforcement operations that have brought 31 indictments, eight convictions, and $1.1 million ordered in restitution. As convictions and sentencing continue, the government expects the restitution figure to grow by several million dollars.
This was a groundbreaking case as it required establishing investigative protocols to document the illegal use of cutting-edge VoIP technology, securing international cooperation, and tracking evidence that had passed among several foreign countries and the United States. All this to say nothing of the fact that untold numbers of potential victims were spared.
Despite the rigorous demands of the case, Roberson has continued to share his 17 years worth of knowledge and experience with junior agents. Throughout the ranks, his colleagues agree that he has been instrumental in mentoring the new cadre of officers in their professional development. They couldn’t ask for a finer example.