Sixty people have been indicted in a nationwide telemarketing scheme in which federal prosecutors say people were tricked into signing up for expensive magazine subscriptions they could not afford, did not want and often did not receive, and in which over 150,000 people were defrauded of more than $300 million.
According to three separate indictments handed up last week, prosecutors alleged that for 20 years, dozens of fraudulent telemarketing companies operating across 14 states and two Canadian provinces used deceptive sales tactics in the scheme. Erica H. MacDonald, the U.S. attorney for Minnesota, said at a news conference on Wednesday that the scheme was part of a growing trend in crimes against older people in recent years.
“These calls aren’t just annoying,” she said. “Beyond financial, they take an emotional toll, especially on these victims.”
The charges include conspiracy, mail fraud, wire fraud and violating the Senior Citizens Against Marketing Scams Act of 1994.
In a statement on Wednesday, Ms. MacDonald, whose office is prosecuting the case, called the operation “the largest elder fraud scheme in the nation.”
“Unfortunately, we live in a world where fraudsters are willing to take advantage of seniors, who are often trusting and polite,” she said. “It’s my hope that this prosecution is a call for vigilance and caution.”
The case was investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the United States Postal Inspection Service.
Michael Paul, the lead F.B.I. investigator on the case, said in a statement that the defendants “bilk hard-earned money from their aging victims — leaving so many financially devastated in their retirement years and without recourse for recovery.”
“The F.B.I. is working intently to help ensure our elderly fellow citizens are protected and not defrauded,” he added.
The 60 defendants span all levels of the operation, including company owners, call center managers, telemarketers and brokers, who sold customer information to the fraudulent companies for $10 or $15 per name, according to charging documents.
The companies operated in Minnesota, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, California, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, North Carolina and Arkansas.
Prosecutors allege that the defendants used fraudulent scripts to target vulnerable customers. The “renewal” script, for instance, involved telemarketers falsely claiming that they were calling to renew the victims’ active magazine subscriptions at a reduced rate. Instead, telemarketers were setting up recurring payments to the companies, which had no existing relationship with the victims.
Some also used the “cancellation” script, which was used to trick those who had fallen for the scheme before into paying the companies large lump-sum payments to settle “balances owed,” which prosecutors said in the statement were “made up.”
At the news conference, Ms. MacDonald described one call in which someone pretending to be a lawyer left a message for an older woman, saying that if she did not settle her account, he would pursue legal action. “In the meantime,’’ he added, “this contract will renew for another three-year term, so you’re going to receive magazines probably until the day you die. I hope that’s what you want.”
Mr. Paul, the F.B.I. investigator, said one woman had been defrauded of $60,000, with over 40 percent of withdrawals from her account going to “phony magazine subscriptions.”
According to charging documents, the companies worked together, sharing customer information so that some victims were billed by 10 or more of the companies at once, resulting in more than $1,000 in subscription charges in a month.
Tasha Verna, the spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, said in an interview that the wide-ranging investigation had been prompted by an earlier case in Minnesota in which prosecutors say Wayne Robert Dahl Jr. ran one of the fraudulent companies, defrauding 13,000 victims across the country of more than $10 million. Mr. Dahl pleaded guilty this year to one count of mail fraud and is awaiting sentencing.
Those who believe they may have been defrauded or know someone who has may visit the website that prosecutors created to track such claims.
At the news conference, Ms. MacDonald issued a warning to potential scammers.
“When you pick up that phone and you try to contact a senior citizen from one of these lead lists,” she said, “you may unwittingly not realize you’re contacting a federal agent acting in an undercover capacity as a susceptible senior citizen. Be warned.”