ST. GEORGE — Raven Devonnett Burnett Shakes congratulated her 82-year-old victim on her good fortune of winning a multimillion dollar “prize sweepstakes.”
Shakes befriended the lonely widow from Southern Utah and pressed her to liquidate as many assets as possible to obtain money to redeem her prize. Through the telephone-based sweepstakes fraud, Shakes succeeded in obtaining $161,000 from the elderly woman.
“She stole excessively and without conscience,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Bell said of Shakes in federal court Monday. “She stopped only because the FBI caught her …. She scammed elderly victims for roughly a quarter of a million dollars. She didn’t earn a penny of that money, but she earned every day of the sentence the court hands down today.”
Shakes, 27, of Malden, Massachusetts, appeared before U.S. District Judge Ted Stewart in St. George Monday to hear her sentence after pleading guilty to mail fraud in February as part of a plea agreement.
“It’s hard for me to believe that people can do things like this to other people,” the elderly woman said as she stood in court, looking Shakes directly in the eyes. “… And, I really feel sorry for you because you just don’t realize that you changed someone’s life, and not for the better.”
After immigrating from Jamaica and becoming a permanent resident of the United States more than three years ago, Shakes will now live behind bars in a federal penitentiary for the next four years.
Judge Stewart sentenced Shakes to a 51-month prison sentence and ordered her to pay $161,000 in restitution, noting that Shakes may likely be deported after finishing her sentence for her far-reaching scheme.
The sweepstakes scheme
“Focusing on the elderly, Ms. Shakes targeted people who are generally more trusting, less technologically savvy and frequently lonely and easily manipulated,” Bell stated in a sentencing memorandum filed in court. “Robbing such victims of financial independence at the time in their life when medical needs are mostly likely to strain their resources is cruel and selfish.”
Posing as a 64-year-old woman named “Kimberly,” Shakes called the 82-year-old woman’s cellphone in February 2016 and told her she had won a prize of $11.5 million in a sweepstakes that she had automatically been enrolled in by virtue of paying her utility bills.
Shakes directed the Washington County woman to send money for payment of taxes and other fees associated with claiming the multimillion-dollar prize and persuaded her to keep the transactions secret lest she jeopardize her “prize money” by violating “confidentiality” rules.
In just under four months, Shakes called the woman nearly 500 times, befriending her and earning the elderly woman’s trust by frequently asking about her children and, as “Kimberly,” sharing stories of what she described as her own 84-year-old mother.
“Sometimes when you would call, we would just talk,” the woman told Shakes in court Monday. “You became a friend to me. We talked about your mother and my kids and grandkids and the things you would talk to a friend about.”
See scam victim talk about her experience in video top of this report.
During the course of the scam, Shakes directed the woman to send packages containing bulk cash payments, telling her that upon receipt of sufficient payment of all taxes and fees, the $11.5 million-dollar sweepstakes prize would be released to her.
Shakes further instructed the woman to apply for a home equity loan in an effort to obtain even more money.
“She’s not only this aggressive with the individual victim, but she worked very hard to exploit others – and just how many, it’s hard to know,” Bell argued in court. “… Collectively, to the other victims, she made hundreds of additional calls. This defendant didn’t shy away from hard work – she just shied away from honest work.”
After cashing in her investments and annuities, the elderly woman took out a home equity loan but her family eventually learned of the situation and contacted the FBI prior to conclusion of the scam.
Federal agents identified “Kimberly” as Shakes and subsequently conducted a controlled delivery of an additional cash payment to Shakes before executing a search warrant on her Massachusetts residence.
After learning of the strong evidence against her, including recorded conversations and forensic analysis of her cellphone, Shakes eventually pleaded guilty.
“Although she’s plead (sic) guilty, she hasn’t taken any steps to make her victims whole,” Bell said. “She stole an enormous amount of money in a short period of time, but she reports that she has no money, no assets, no form of income.”
Federal investigators found evidence that Shakes’ overall scheme caused more than $250,000 in total intended loss – nearly all of it in actual losses to the woman and several other victims, most of them between 71 and 91 years old.
At Monday’s hearing, Shakes explained why her sentence should be lenient, noting that if she was given some time before being taken into custody, she had an employer willing to hire her immediately.
“I am truly remorseful for my actions,” Shakes said. “I am really sorry for the loss of the victim. I hope she can find it in her heart to forgive me. In the future, I won’t make this mistake again. … I also have a job offer. I will work to reimburse whatever I can to the victim.”
Bell responded: “She’s made no payments toward restitution and I find it curious that here, today, she suggests that she could have a job starting tomorrow if the court would not take her into custody.”
Judge Stewart said it concerned the court that Shakes had shown “very little remorse” and no attempt to make good to those she harmed.
“The court wants to impose a sentence that will deter this defendant and others from similar conduct,” Stewart said. “The court also believes that it has to impose a sentence that will protect the public from similar conduct by this defendant and others.”
Stewart handed down the maximum sentence and ordered Shakes to be taken into custody by U.S. marshals immediately, deeming her a risk to the community as well as a flight risk due to her citizenship in another country and the potential of her having a large amount of money possibly stashed overseas.
U.S. Attorney for the District of Utah John W. Huber spoke outside the St. George courthouse Monday about the increasing frequency of fraud crimes targeting the elderly.
“The sentence issued by Judge Stewart today is a message of justice to those who exploit our elders,” Huber said, “and it’s a message to our elders that they’re important in our society and we will do all we can to protect them.”
The Federal Trade Commission provides the following ways to spot a prize scam:
- Scammers ask you to pay before you can claim your prize. Legitimate sweepstakes don’t make you pay a fee or buy something to enter or improve your chances of winning. Scammers might try to sound official and say it’s for “taxes,” “shipping and handling charges” or “processing fees.” Don’t pay to claim a prize, and never give your checking or credit card number for a sweepstakes promotion.
- Scammers ask you to wire money to “ensure” delivery of your prize. Don’t do it. Legitimate sweepstakes don’t ask you to wire money. Once you wire money, you can’t get it back. The same goes for sending a check or money order by overnight delivery or putting money on a prepaid debit card.
- Scammers send you a check and ask you to send some of the money back. But the check is fake, and you’re responsible for repaying the bank.
- Scammers use the names of well-known companies for prize scams. Con artists often pretend to call from well-known companies to make themselves appear legitimate and gain your trust. If you don’t remember entering, you probably didn’t. If you think it may be legit, use a search engine to find the company’s real phone number. Call to confirm that you entered a contest before responding to any claims that you won.
If you’re suspicious of a prize offer, report it to the FTC.
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