How a scam artist stole an eye-popping $50 million from elderly people, $30 at a time

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The letters went out like clockwork every month — 750,000 of them. 

They bore tidings of great wealth, declaring the recipient had won a large cash prize. All they had to do was send as little as a $30 processing fee to claim it. 

And every month, some 2% of the recipients responded — or 15,000 people — each enclosing a $30 to $50 check or money order, according to court documents. In all, that amounted to at least $450,000 a month.

But it was all a scam, federal prosecutors said. There were no prizes. The money simply went into the pockets of a 41-year-old man named Ryan Young from Upper Saddle River, N.J. From 2011 through 2022, prosecutors say, Young and co-conspirators raked in $50 million through the scam.

On Friday, Young was sentenced to five years in prison for his role in operating two separate prize-letter schemes. Perhaps even worse, Young had been accused of running the second scheme after pleading guilty and awaiting sentencing for the first, prosecutors said.

“The defendant’s conduct is especially egregious,” said Eric Shen of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service. “After pleading guilty and acknowledging his responsibility, Mr. Young decided to revert back to what he knew best, which was ripping off Americans.”

Messages left with Young’s attorney weren’t immediately returned.

‘I need this money to get well’

Federal prosecutors in the Eastern District of New York say Young specifically targeted older victims by purchasing lists from other scam operators of people who had fallen prey to similar frauds in the past.

According to court filings, anyone who ever responded to one of the phony prize letters would then receive 15 more over the next few months. Each would be written to appear different, but all would solicit similar fees in order to claim the prize. For people who had responded once, the reply rate to follow-up solicitations was as high as 5%, according to details contained in the filings.

“This is the 4th letter from you. I ask you to find the money order I sent in March. I paid you 30 dollars. Where is my money?” read a letter from one victim that investigators found in Young’s home

The court filings included many such letters, almost all from victims who described themselves as elderly and living on very limited fixed incomes. Many of them said the promised money was like a gift from God. 

“I am a 93-year-old living on a small social security income. My goal in life is to pay my debts so I can continue my charities before I die. So please be true to this. May the good lord bless you,” read one letter. “I am in a big financial crisis. I just borrowed the $50 from a neighbor.” 

Others described being in poor health and having few relatives or friends who could help them.

“I hope this is not a scam. I am 80-years-old, sick and in bed and I need this money to get well,” read another letter. 

Repeat offender

Prosecutors say Young had spent almost all of his adult life honing his prize-money scam. 

Part of his ability to ramp up the scheme to such a widespread level came from his partnership with third-party outfits overseas, known as caging services, that would help send the solicitations and collect and process the payments, prosecutors said. The firms specialized in sweepstakes and clairvoyant mailings, court documents said. 

One of the firms, called Trends, was based in the Netherlands and shut down by Dutch authorities in 2016 after being hit with charges brought by federal prosecutors in Brooklyn. Prosecutors say Young and his co-conspirators also used similar services in Canada and Austria. 

To further conceal his connection with the scheme, Young registered corporate entities overseas using intermediaries. Those firms were used to create bank accounts for Young to ultimately receive the payments. 

Prosecutors say Young hired another man, Thomas Ressler, of Whitehall, Mont., to write the phony solicitation letters, and paid him over $1 million over the course of several years. Ressler pleaded guilty in 2018 to his role in the scheme and was sentenced to 36 months in prison.

Young was initially arrested in 2016 for running the larger of the two scams he was eventually charged with, in which he and a co-conspirator, Ercan Barka, were accused of stealing $48 million from hundreds of thousands of elderly victims. Barka provided testimony against Young and his case remains pending, court records show.

In 2018, Young pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit mail fraud. But while awaiting sentencing, prosecutors say, he launched another prize-money scheme through which he would eventually steal an additional $1.6 million. He was charged with the second fraud in 2022 and pleaded guilty the following year.

In court filings, Young’s lawyer said his client had suffered a lapse of judgment in 2018 following the death of his mother and the return of his estranged father to his life, which led him to make the poor choice of launching another fraud scheme.

Young’s attorney had argued in court papers that his client should be given some credit for cooperating with authorities in helping take down the overseas caging services that had played a role in his fraud and others. 

Prosecutors argued that Young had spent much of his life as a predator targeting elderly, vulnerable people from whom he “took more than $50 million dollars.” They noted that he continued running the scam despite receiving “handwritten accounts of the harm his actions were having on his victims on a daily basis.”    

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