A federal grand jury Tuesday indicted a Costa Rican man for alleged ties to one of the largest and most pernicious telemarketing sweepstakes scams in recent American history, marking the first new arrest in the case since federal agents attempted to shut down the boiler room operations in 2006.
The 25-year-old defendant, Emilio Jose Torres, was detained at a Miami airport last month and has been accused in Tuesday's indictment of running an illegal call center in Costa Rica.
"The defendant and his co-conspirators would falsely inform victims by telephone that they had won a large sweepstakes prize but that they needed to pay certain fees … in order to collect their prize," the indictment says. "This process would continue for as long as the particular victim could be persuaded to send additional funds."
Authorities tell ABC News they believe Torres is one key player in a much larger scam operation that has been targeting mostly elderly victims in the U.S. for several years. The swindlers have stolen more than $20 million from people who thought they were paying luxury taxes or other fees in order to receive sweepstakes winnings, authorities said. Last month, law enforcement officials in Costa Rica said they believed as many as 20 boiler rooms were operating, though they are difficult to track because they change locations about every three months.
Click Here To Listen To a Phone Scammer At Work
Frank A. Rubino, a renowned criminal defense attorney in Miami -- best known for representing former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega -- has taken on Torres as a client. He told ABC News his client is "a nice educated young man who has never been arrested or had any legal problems in his life."
"He's been accused," Rubino said. "Now the government has to prove it."
Rubino markets himself as a top-tier white collar defense attorney who "limits his practice to the most serious and complex state, federal and international charges." When asked how a 25-year-old with no clear legal source of income could afford Rubino's services, the attorney said Torres's parents have made a good living in the Costa Rican real estate market. "His parents love him dearly and they're doing what they have to in order to help him," he said.
Torres is currently being held in a North Carolina jail and is scheduled to enter a plea at the end of this month.
Phone Scam Victims Promised Seven-Figure Paydays
ABC News first reported on the spree of telemarketing scam calls last month, detailing cases in which victims such as Patricia Bowles of Northern Virginia and Robert Sussman of suburban Philadelphia were promised seven-figure paydays by callers claiming to be from the U.S. Treasury Department or the Federal Trade Commission.
Bowles, Sussman, and hundreds of other victims were persuaded to wire thousands of dollars through Western Union to Costa Rica, and never saw any winnings.
Authorities allege that Torres oversaw one of the boiler room operations involved in a similar scam, and document in court filings more than $106,000 that victims in New York, Texas, Nevada, California, Kentucky and South Carolina sent through wire transfers to his operation between December 19, 2009 and August of this year.
For a brief period, federal agents thought they had shut down the telemarketing scammers, who migrated a decade ago from Canada to Costa Rica. The swindlers discovered the Central America country offered sufficient modern conveniences to carry out their scheme, and put them largely beyond the reach of American justice.
But in 2006, with the scams siphoning millions from American victims, U.S. agents teamed up with Costa Rican officials and raided some two dozen illegal call centers. The raids resulted in more than 40 arrests and convictions, with the ringleaders being sentenced to more than 50 years in federal prison.
But some of those familiar with the telemarketing scheme remained free, protected by Costa Rican citizenship and constitutional protections that made it impossible for American agents to prosecute them. Last month, ABC News caught up with two men wanted in connection with the phone scams who have avoided arrest because they held not only American, but also Costa Rican passports.
One of them, Roberto Fields Curtis, denied his involvement in the crimes but said he knew the illegal call centers were still in operation. "Oh, I know it is," he said. "I know a lot of people who are still doing it."