A call, a ruse, and guilt: 'Known Victim' in alleged scam with Pownal ties offers warning

Police say that at least some calls by people now accused of orchestrating an elaborate fraud scheme from the Berkshires.likely were made from an apartment in Adams. Court documents suggest that the shop and the Racing Mart down the street are owned by one of the three people arrested in the alleged scam.

ADAMS, Mass. — Silent, angry and ashamed, they drove through the night from Fredericksburg, Va., to intercept a package at the FedEx distribution center in Pittsfield, Mass.

The woman, her fiance and her mother stopped only once for a bathroom break. It took about 7 1/2 hours to drive the more than 400 miles to FedEx at 1 Federico Drive.

The woman had overnighted $13,000 in cash to the "feds" in Williamstown after being told by people impersonating federal agents that a felon on the Mexico border with Texas had stolen her identity, and that blood was found inside a car rented in her name.

She fell for the ruse, one of nine people in seven states who, police say, were duped by people now accused of orchestrating an elaborate fraud scheme from the Berkshires.

The caller said her bank accounts soon would be frozen, and that the only way to fix it and clear her name was to withdraw the cash and mail it. She then would be reimbursed by the "government," and she was emailed a convincing copy of a $14,000 check from the "United States Treasury" to prove it.

She was told not to tell anyone about this for 24 hours or she would go to prison for life. Her phones were tapped and FBI agents were listening in on the call, they said.

She was too terrified to tell her fiance, who was sitting in the next room when the call came, she told The Eagle. They were about to close on their first home, and the thought of losing what they had worked so hard for was unbearable. The woman, 34, said she now is so fearful of being targeted that she spoke on the condition that her name would not be used.

After sending her life savings, she finally told her fiance.

"It was that one small voice and intuition that said, 'Go to your fiance's work. Leave your phones at home, they're not going to know.'"

Furious, he told her that she had been scammed, and said "go get your money."

The package already was en route, but FedEx workers had it stopped in Pittsfield. So, when he got off work, the couple, along with the woman's mother, set out for Pittsfield, where FedEx would hold the package.

"He wouldn't let us drive," she said of her fiance, who is a corrections officer. "And he had worked until midnight the night before. God really stepped in, and my mother and my fiance, they said, 'We're not leaving Pittsfield, Massachusetts, until we have that money.' I thought that my life was just done."

Weeping and filled with shame, she retrieved it from a FedEx worker already aware of the suspicious packages coming through since March. He took down her number and gave it to a detective.

'Known Victim #7'

Police now had made contact with "Known Victim #7" — and one of the youngest — of a scam that court documents suggest has foreign connections. They say the deception that unfurled in an apartment above a smoke shop on Columbia Avenue in Adams netted about $300,000, mailed from mostly older people.

The alleged conspirators confused and frightened their targets with ploys that included compromised Social Security numbers, stolen identities and pursuit by federal authorities. They said things to isolate them from family and police, persuading them to send via FedEx as much as $50,000 in cash to straighten out a dangerous mess.

Much of the cash has been returned to some of the victims, according to the Berkshire County District Attorney's Office. And other victims intercepted their own packages.

The story of how the alleged plot was revealed is a cloak-and-dagger tale that involves suspicious and concerned FedEx workers and a small-town police detective who told one victim, "No one is going to do this in my town."

It involves a witness who worked for the alleged thieves and said they were once asked to fetch a "silver revolver with a brown handle" that was kept inside a drawer. That witness said they watched the conspirators count $80,000 in cash before handing it to a woman in a parking lot on the outskirts of New York City, and heard one of them say they had been sending too much money out of the country by Western Union.

In the past two weeks, three men have been arraigned after a three-month investigation and raid of the apartment that, police say, uncovered the tools of artifice. These include fraudulent passports, driver's licenses from different states, tens of thousands in cash and a script for defrauding people over the phone.

More arrests might come as local police and state police detectives with the DA's office continue to work the case.

Cousins Jitendra Chaudhari, 27, of Williamstown, and Ajaykumar Chaudhari, 24, of Pownal, Vt., are charged with crimes of conspiracy, stealing by false pretenses and stealing from those over the age of 65. Prosecutors say they pose a flight risk and initially asked for higher bail than the $100,000 on which they are held.

Parth "Peter" Chaudhari, 23, also of Pownal, later was charged and also is being held on $100,000 bail.

In the first phone conference arraignment, one prosecutor told the court, "We don't know who these people are."

Public defenders appointed to represent the two cousins said their clients were in the wrong place at the wrong time. And Jitendra Chaudhari's attorney said her client does not have the English language skills to have pulled off the scam as alleged, and that he had come to Williamstown for meaningful work at his uncle's motel there.

Candy, chips and foil

It began March 19 with a call from a Licking, Mo., Police corporal to an Adams Police officer about $13,000 cash sent to a residence on Victory Terrace in Adams. "Known Victim #1" is a 72-year-old woman in Licking who, police say, was tricked by someone who told her that she needed a new Social Security card because she had been "scammed."

Before sending money to Adams, she overnighted $10,000 in cash to Stamford, Conn., following the instructions of someone using the same name as the person who tricked her into sending the larger amount.

The investigation had begun. As it continued, each victim would describe similarities, according to the court documents.

They were duped by men and women, mostly with "Indian accents," who impersonated federal workers from various agencies, including the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Department of the Treasury. In some cases, victims told police that the criminals used the names of real workers so that, when searched for online, they could be found.

They would remain on the phone with their targets as the victims drove to banks, instructing them on how to send the cash. Wrap it in tinfoil — to hide it in case of X-ray — and surround it with candy bars and bags of chips. Then, tape it liberally and at every corner.

Some of the victims had dementia; others were young and quickly realized that they had been scammed.

Police say that at least some of these calls likely were made from the apartment above the Express Smoke & Vape Shop. Court documents suggest that the shop and the Racing Mart down the street are owned by Parth Chaudhari. The businesses sit in a neighborhood with a mix of homes and stores. Neither business, as named, could be located in the state's corporate database.

Isolation key

"Known Victim #2," of Norman, Okla., was told that the DEA found a car in El Paso, Texas, with drugs in it that was registered in his name.

He also was told that he shouldn't tell anyone in his family about the situation because they were suspicious that his family was involved in drug running and money laundering. This victim, age 29, realized that he had been scammed of the $8,500 in cash he had sent to the Walgreens in Hoosick Falls, N.Y.

He is another of the lucky ones who got their money back after he frantically called police and the store. The Walgreens manager intercepted the package and gave it to local police.

One expert in fraud schemes, particularly those targeting the elderly, said that what is unique about this case is that the thieves worked locally when, typically, they make calls from another county. Also rare is to steal cash rather than swindle someone electronically, or by money order or gift card, said Elliott Greenblott, the Vermont AARP Fraud Watch Network Coordinator who has written about this in The Eagle.

Greenblott said it is a misconception that those 65 and older are defrauded most often, though they often fall for a scam that "tugs at the heartstrings," like one that ensnared a North Adams grandmother in 2018. It is those ages 25 to 45 who more frequently are victimized.

"We all think it's going to be some little old lady living on a hillside alone," he said. "The difference is that seniors are taken for more money."

Indeed, an 85-year-old woman in Wapakoneta, Ohio, had wrapped $49,000 in cash in foil, surrounded it with Snickers bars in a shoebox and sent it to Pittsfield. Pittsfield Police seized the package after it was reported by the same suspicious FedEx worker who helped the Virginia woman after she had driven through the night.

When the DA's office announced the initial arrests June 15, it cautioned the public to guard against "elaborate telephone scams in which an unknown caller seeks to alarm, panic and distress to coerce the recipient to transfer money to the caller."

Through her spokesman, Berkshire District Attorney Andrea Harrington declined further comment, citing the ongoing investigation.

Robert Kinzer, a Pittsfield attorney who was a prosecutor in the DA's office for 22 years, said it appears that this type of fraud is growing more sophisticated. He said he would be surprised if local police weren't working with federal investigators.

"They have more experience [with financial fraud] and can bring more in terms of punishment," he said, particularly since the cash was crossing states. "The feds would always be somebody that we would want to call. Sometimes you're going to need their help."

The DA's office would not say whether federal agencies are involved.

Kinzer said that, depending on the circumstances, there is no need to hold onto cash as evidence, even if the case hasn't been prosecuted yet — especially when it is clear who withdrew an amount of cash and mailed it.

"Known Victim #7," who had intercepted her package in Pittsfield, said she was filled with guilt for getting duped. Today, she is learning to forgive herself.

She grew up in Cambridge and works for the Department of Homeland Security. Her in-laws-to-be all work in law enforcement. She still can't believe that she fell for it.

"It's the heart and personality I have," she said, noting that she was raised by a single mother who sheltered her and her siblings.

She is grateful to the "caring" FedEx staffer and detective who called her.

And to her fiance, whom she almost didn't tell.

"We cried, we argued, we made up," she said. "I thought, 'If we can't get through this, then maybe it's not meant to be.' I think it made us stronger."

She hopes that her story will help people avoid being taken in.

"Literally, just hang up and call somebody that you trust," she said.

Heather Bellow can be reached at hbellow@berkshireeagle.com or on Twitter @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.