Lottery scheme targeted Latina grandmothers, FBI says in announcing 4 arrests

Voviette D. Morgan, FBI special agent in charge of the Criminal Division for Los Angeles, announce the arrest and charge in a federal indictment involving a scheme that targeted older Hispanic females; defendants allegedly stole large amounts of cash by convincing victims to cash lottery tickets.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

Authorities say four people with ties to Colombia are responsible for a long-running lottery ticket scam that bilked older Latina women out of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Four people with ties to Colombia are responsible for a long-running lottery ticket scheme targeting older Latina women in Southern California and bilking them out of hundreds of thousands of dollars, the FBI announced Monday.

Luisa Camargo, 38; Mercedes Montanez, 68; Tito Lozada, 49; and Maria Luisa Henao, 43, were charged Nov. 12 with conspiracy to commit wire fraud, U.S. Justice Department records show.

Camargo, Montanez and Lozada are all native Colombians. Henao recently became a U.S. citizen after emigrating from Colombia.

According to a federal indictment, the scheme involved approaching Latina women, ages 64 to 81, and asking for help cashing a “winning” lottery ticket. One of the four would pretend to be a lottery official and confirm the ticket’s validity over the phone, while another would offer to help cash in the ticket. During the phone call, the co-conspirators told the victims a deposit was required before the winnings could be paid.


Much of the scam was conducted in Spanish, according to Voviette Morgan, special agent in charge of the criminal division for the Los Angeles field office of the FBI.

The targets of the scheme were encouraged to contribute money or jewelry, and the suspects would drive them home or to their banks to retrieve the items, court documents show. The victims then were driven to an unknown residence under the guise of waiting for additional contributors while those involved in the scam fled.

In a news conference Monday, Morgan said her team has linked Camargo, Montanez, Lozada and Henao to at least 10 victims in 11 incidents. She thinks there may be others involved in the far-reaching scheme that ran from 2017 to September 2019 in multiple Southern California communities, including Long Beach, Maywood and San Pedro.

“Tens of hundreds of thousands of dollars” have been lost, she said. “In 2019, we typically think of scams being perpetrated online via email or over the phone. But this scam I’m discussing today is up close, and it is personal and it is face-to-face.”


Morgan said her team was tipped off by the San Diego County district attorney’s office, which helped identify the suspects.

Camargo, Montanez and Lozada were arrested in Long Beach and are expected to be arraigned Monday. Henao was arrested in San Diego and is being held without bail. If convicted, each faces 20 years in federal prison.

Morgan said it’s important that the public be made aware of this issue so no one else would fall for a similar trick.

“It’s effective, it’s working and it’s targeting upon a vulnerable part of our population,” she said.