A 27-year-old man was sentenced Tuesday to four years and three months behind bars for his role in a cross-border telemarketing scheme that duped residents of Los Angeles, Orange and Riverside counties by convincing them their grandchildren were in distress and needed money in a foreign country.
Kelen Magael Buchan, of Montreal, Canada, was also ordered by U.S. District Judge Cormac J. Carney to pay restitution of nearly $520,000 to victims of the scam, which operated seven years ago for about three months from locations in Montreal.
“This was money taken from senior citizens — their life savings and retirement,” Carney said from the bench during the hours-long sentencing hearing in downtown Los Angeles. “This was targeting people who have great love for their grandchildren.”
In a so-called grandparent scam, telemarketers or pitchers call potential victims, pretending to be relatives who need help in the form of money. Once the financial transaction information is in hand, the pitcher gives the details to associates, and the cash is retrieved as quickly as possible before the victim catches on.
In pleading guilty to a federal wire fraud charge, Buchan admitted he was a pitcher in the scam, and that he lied to elderly victims in the United States and impersonated their relatives to induce them to send money. The 29-year-old alleged ringleader, Clifford Kirstein, is scheduled for a pretrial hearing before Carney in November. Three other alleged members of the scheme have also been charged.
Several victims gave impact statements to the court. A Los Angeles man, who was then about 82 years old, said he received multiple phone calls from an imposter claiming to be his grandson trapped in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, and was convinced to send $14,900 out of his $20,000 savings, and paid $748 in Western Union fees, in response to fraudulent claims for help.
As part of his plea, Buchan admitted to attempting to extort an elderly Southland couple who were called on the telephone by imposters pretending to be their grandson in need of $4,800 for bail in Central America. The man withdrew money in preparation to send to the imposter, but was urged by a Western Union employee not to send it. When the man’s wife later told the caller they knew it was a scam, the caller responded that he was at their door and was going to break it down.
“They used something that is priceless — a love for a grandchild,” the woman told the court. Her husband added that as a retired accountant, he never imagined he could be scammed, “but I came within five seconds of handing over $5,000,” he told the judge.
Buchan’s attorney, federal public defender David Wasserman, argued that his client was a changed person and should get no more than 15 months in prison and deserved credit for 10 months of time served.
“As a 19-year-old, he made a really, really stupid decision,” the defense attorney said, adding that the government had no proof that Buchan made the threatening call or that he was a manager of the boiler-room operation.
The judge, however, said that in his long career, he had never seen such a “cruel and heartless” scheme.
“Picking on grandparents — it was such a cruel offense,” Carney said. “My heart goes out to the victims.”
Buchan briefly apologized, telling the court that when he committed the offense, “I was young, naive and immature.”
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