Scammers tricked seniors into buying millions in Target gift cards

US

Three Los Angeles-area residents were found guilty of laundering more than $2.5 million from older adults by scamming them into buying Target gift cards, according to authorities.

Blade Bai, 35, of El Monte; Bowen Hu, 28, of Hacienda Heights and Tairan Shi, 29, of Diamond Bar were found guilty by a jury Tuesday of one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering after a 10-day trial, according to a U.S. attorney’s office news release. Bai was also found guilty of an additional count of conspiring to commit money laundering, which prosecutors said he committed after he was already freed in the initial case.

Bai has been in custody since February 2022 and Hu and Shi were remanded into custody after the verdict. A sentencing hearing is scheduled for Jan. 26, when the three face a statutory maximum sentence of 20 years in prison for each money laundering conspiracy count.

The gift cards were distributed to “runners,” who went to Target stores in L.A. and Orange counties to buy electronics and other items, according to the release, which does not specify the number of older victims. In September 2022, one of the runners, Yan Fu, 60, of Chino Hills, pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering. He was ordered to pay $48,073 in restitution.

The scheme typically involved scammers who live overseas calling victims to persuade them to buy Target gift cards “to fix nonexistent problems,” according to the release. Some fraudsters pose as government employees or law enforcement officers claiming that the victims’ identities had been stolen or there was a warrant out for their arrest.

Other victims were scammed when they responded to tech support emails that claimed there were problems with the victims’ financial accounts. They were persuaded to buy Target gift cards, usually in increments of $500.

According to prosecutors, Bai, Hu and Shi got more than 5,000 gift cards from a group in China called the “Magic Lamp” and sold the information from the gift cards through WeChat, an online messaging app.

The three laundered more than $2.5 million in gift cards between June 2019 and November 2020, authorities said.

Bai was arrested in November 2020 and after being released on bond, he got involved with another money-laundering scheme involving Target gift cards, authorities said, one in which he offered to introduce an associate to someone who had already purchased merchandise from him. Bai asked the associate to liquidate about $36,000 worth of Target gift cards. Bai and the accomplice sold the gift cards to the customer for about 90 cents on the dollar.

Bai was arrested again in February 2022 and has been in federal custody ever since.

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