The 69-year-old retiree from Texas needed a moment to think about whether she felt comfortable accepting an offer to pay $500 that day to forgive her $1,100 debt to a magazine subscription company.
Purporting to be an attorney from an international firm based in Chicago, the man on the other end of the line grew impatient and threatened legal action before the woman, identified in court documents as "Betty M.," hung up the phone. In a subsequent voice mail, the man repeated his threat and told her she was being signed up for another three-year subscription.
"So you're going to receive magazines probably until the day you die," he insisted. "I hope that's what you want. Have a great day."
Federal agents were also listening to the call on a wiretap, with Betty's consent, as part of a telemarketing scam investigation that authorities are now calling the nation's largest-ever elder fraud case. Minnesota U.S. Attorney Erica MacDonald announced details of the criminal case Wednesday, including allegations that, over the span of two decades, 60 people from across the U.S. and Canada bilked about 183,000 victims, many of them elderly, out of more than $335 million.
"Unfortunately, we live in a world where fraudsters are willing to take advantage of seniors, who are often trusting and polite," MacDonald said. "It's my hope that this prosecution is a call for vigilance and caution."
Court documents — including three recently unsealed criminal indictments returned by a Minnesota federal grand jury — provide details into the alleged vast and sweeping conspiracy that sought to prey upon the desperation of vulnerable people.
The case is the first time federal prosecutors in Minnesota have charged a case under the Senior Citizens Against Marketing Scams Act of 1994, which seeks to protect seniors from this type of predatory scam, said MacDonald.
"We could fill our local professional football stadium here in Minneapolis with sellout crowds twice and still not accommodate all of these victims," said Michael Paul, special agent in charge of the FBI field office in Minnesota.
At the top of the chain is Russell Jason Rahm, also known as Rusty, a Kansas City-based businessman who races speedboats during his leisure time and whose co-defendants come from more than a dozen states, including Minnesota, and Canada.
Prosecutors say the scheme consisted of creating "lead lists" of people already on the hook for expensive magazine subscriptions who could be signed up for additional payments under the guise of discounts or cancellations. Some of the victims came to be billed by as many as 10 phony companies at a time and paid as much as $1,000 in monthly credit card charges, according to the indictments.
The telemarketers in on the scheme followed scripts that told them to falsely claim the victims owed a large outstanding balance for magazine subscriptions, then tricked them by offering to pay off that balance in exchange for a lump-sum payment, according to indictments. The telemarketers frequently intimidated the victims, such as in the case with Betty, by getting angry and making threats of legal action, the charges say.
Other scripts "were designed to induce consumers, through a series of lies and misrepresentations, into unwittingly signing up for expensive magazine subscriptions," according to the charges.
Court documents describe how the investigation led by the FBI and U.S. Postal Inspection Service came out of a 2016 Minnesota Attorney General's Office lawsuit against Wayne R. Dahl Jr., a 51-year-old Fridley man whose Your Magazine Service, Inc., was later ordered by a judge to pay $20 million. Dahl has also since pleaded guilty to running a decadelong scam that defrauded at least 13,000 people out of $11 million.
In the early months of the probe, agents sent questionnaires to Dahl's victims, receiving more than 1,000 replies. One elderly victim's son sent a handwritten letter telling the FBI to "WAKE UP" and realize that an entire industry was preying on his mother. "What 78 yr old woman spends $1402.91 on magazines per year?" he wrote.
As the federal investigation grew in scope, so did the tactics deployed by federal agents working undercover. According to court documents, Dahl eventually cooperated with authorities by creating lead lists, which included names, phone numbers and credit card numbers belonging to undercover agents posing as prospective customers. Dahl sent the lists to "lead brokers," who sold the information to numerous fraudulent magazine companies that in turn called the agents, who used burner flip phones to take the calls. Between July 2019 and January 2020, undercover agents received and recorded more than 400 calls from magazine companies nationwide. They also tracked, via their credit card accounts, how such companies added new, duplicate charges despite having offered to reduce or consolidate their existing subscriptions.
Two other men had been arrested in the case before the announcement of Wednesday's larger indictments. Michael Oelrich, a Florida man accused of running several scam magazine companies, recently pleaded guilty on fraud charges. Brian James Williams, 51, of Orono, was arrested in August as he tried to board a Los Angeles flight to Canada. Williams allegedly ran several magazine scam companies with call centers in the metro suburbs.
Until this week, court filings in the case alluded to a shadowy figure at the top of the conspiracy referred to only as Individual R. That man has since been identified as Rahm, owner and chief executive of several Shawnee, Kan.-based companies allegedly involved in phony magazine sales. Prosecutors say Rahm distributed sales leads, managed orders, billing and collections for companies and received a percentage of the revenue taken in from victims in exchange.
Also singled out in federal charges as a key leader of the scheme is David Moulder, a Minnesota man who owned and ran several Burnsville-based magazine companies. He is accused of also giving sales leads to his brother, Anthony Moulder, who has also been indicted and allegedly had fraudulent companies telemarketing from call centers in Florida.
The indictments also tell a story of how some involved in the scheme allegedly responded to scrutiny from law enforcement and regulators. After agreeing in court with the Colorado Attorney General's Office to no longer solicit magazine sales in the state in 2011, Henry Aragon and Lucille Patterson went on to open new fake magazine sales companies in Texas and, later, Arizona.
Beyond Rahm and Moulder, the indictment outlines an organizational chart of sorts in that about 14 defendants are described as owners of companies involved in phony magazine sales, another 16 are identified as call center managers, 10 were telemarketers and four served as lead brokers who sold lists of consumers to call — often for as much as $10 to $15 per name.
Federal authorities are seeking to forfeit more than $1.2 million in seized funds and other property so far, and have created a website to try to identify additional victims.
Over the past year, the Department of Justice charged 400 people across the country for crimes against elderly victims, with an estimate of $1 billion in losses, said MacDonald.
"This was a widespread, well thought out, long-running fraud that we have now dismantled on a systemic level," said MacDonald.