Defendant Pleads Guilty In Multi-Million Dollar Prize Notification Scam Affecting Elderly Victims

A Las Vegas area resident charged with perpetrating a prize-notification scheme that bilked victims out of more than $10 million pleaded guilty today, the Department of Justice announced.

Andrea Burrow, 50, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit mail fraud based on her participation in a scheme that preyed upon hundreds of thousands of victims, many of whom were elderly and vulnerable, with fraudulent prize notices.  The notices led victims to believe that they could claim a large cash prize if they paid a small fee.  This was false; victims who paid the fees did not receive anything of value. 

Burrow is the fourth defendant to plead guilty in connection with the scheme. Three other individuals – Patti Kern, Edgar Del Rio, and Sean O’Connor – pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit mail fraud in 2019.  Following these guilty pleas, Burrow was indicted in November 2019 along with five others: Mario Castro, Jose Salud Castro, Salvador Castro, Miguel Castro, and Jose Luis Mendez.  The trial of the remaining five defendants is currently scheduled for Sept. 28, 2020.

“The defendant and her co-conspirators exploited the elderly and vulnerable by bombarding them repeatedly with false promises of wealth,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Ethan P. Davis of the Department of Justice’s Civil Division. “Today’s guilty plea demonstrates the Department’s continuing commitment to bring to justice those who prey upon the elderly.” 

The scheme operated from 2010 to February 2018, when postal inspectors executed multiple search warrants and the Department of Justice obtained a court order shutting down the fraudulent mail operation.  The indictment and other court filings alleged that Mario Castro, Jose Salud Castro, Salvador Castro, Miguel Castro, Jose Luis Mendez, and Edgar Del Rio worked at the printing and mailing businesses that sent the fraudulent mail, and each shared the profits from the fraudulent prize notices with Patti Kern, who helped manage the scheme.  Sean O’ Connor provided laser printing and data processing services to the scheme. Burrow opened victim return mail, sorted cash and other payments, and entered data from the victims’ responses into a database that the scheme used to target past victims with more fraudulent mail, according to the indictment.

“Postal Inspectors are dedicated to the pursuit of protecting those who can’t protect themselves.  This guilty plea should be a warning to all individuals who use promises of large cash prizes to build their own wealth the U.S. Postal Inspection Service will find you and you will be held accountable,” said Inspector in Charge Delany De Leon-Colon, Criminal Investigations Group

Today’s plea took place before U.S. District Judge Gloria Navarro. When sentenced, Burrow faces a statutory maximum sentence of up to 20 years in prison.

The U.S. Postal Inspection Service investigated the case.  The case is being prosecuted by Trial Attorneys Timothy Finley and Daniel Zytnick of the Department of Justice Civil Division’s Consumer Protection Branch and Assistant U.S. Attorney Nicholas Dickinson of the District of Nevada.

An indictment is an accusation by a federal grand jury and is not evidence of guilt.  Defendants should be presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty.

Since President Trump signed the bipartisan Elder Abuse Prevention and Prosecution Act (EAPPA) into law, the Department of Justice has participated in hundreds of enforcement actions in criminal and civil cases that targeted or disproportionately affected seniors.  In January 2020, the department designated “Preventing and Disrupting Transnational Elder Fraud” as an Agency Priority Goal, one of its top four priorities.  Later, in March 2020, the department announced the largest elder fraud enforcement action in American history, charging more than 400 defendants in a nationwide elder fraud sweep.  The department has likewise conducted hundreds of trainings and outreach sessions across the country since the passage of the Act. 

The department’s extensive and broad-based efforts to combat elder fraud seek to halt the billions of dollars senior lose to fraud schemes, including those perpetrated by transnational criminal organizations.  The best method for prevention, however, is by sharing information about the various types of elder fraud schemes with relatives, friends, neighbors, and other seniors who can use that information to protect themselves.

If you or someone you know is age 60 or older and has been a victim of financial fraud, help is standing by at the National Elder Fraud Hotline: 1-833-FRAUD-11 (1-833-372-8311).  This U.S. Department of Justice hotline, managed by the Office for Victims of Crime, is staffed by experienced professionals who provide personalized support to callers by assessing the needs of the victim, and identifying relevant next steps.  Case managers will identify appropriate reporting agencies, provide information to callers to assist them in reporting, connect callers directly with appropriate agencies, and provide resources and referrals, on a case-by-case basis.  Reporting is the first step.  Reporting can help authorities identify those who commit fraud and reporting certain financial losses due to fraud as soon as possible can increase the likelihood of recovering losses.  The hotline is staffed 7 days a week from 6:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. eastern time. English, Spanish and other languages are available.

For more information about the Consumer Protection Branch, visit its website at www.justice.gov/civil/consumer-protection-branch.  For more information about the U.S. Attorneys’ District of Nevada Office, visit their website at www.justice.gov/usao-nv.

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At a retrospective meeting following each sprint, team members discuss lessons learned and any changes needed to improve the process. Sprints allow for distinct, consistent, and measurable progress of prioritized software features. How mature is it? Organizations have used versions of incremental software development since the 1950s, with various groups creating Agile frameworks in the 1990s, including Scrum in 1995. In 2001, a group of software developers created the Agile Manifesto, which documents the guiding principles of Agile. Following this, Agile practitioners introduced new frameworks, such as Kanban, which optimizes work output by visualizing its flow. The Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act (FITARA), enacted in 2014, includes a provision for the Office of Management and Budget to require the Chief Information Officers of covered agencies to certify that IT investments are adequately implementing incremental development. 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At the program operations level, staff should be appropriately trained in Agile methods. And at an organizational level, a best practice is to create a culture that supports Agile methods. Requirements development and management. Requirements—sometimes called user stories—are important in making sure the final product will function as intended. Best practices in this area include eliciting and prioritizing requirements and ensuring work meets those requirements. Acquisition strategy. Contractors may have a role in an Agile program in government. However, long timelines to award contracts and costly changes are major hurdles to executing Agile programs. One way to clear these hurdles is for organizations to create an integrated team with personnel from contracting, the program office, and software development. Clearly identifying team roles will alleviate bottlenecks in the development process. Figure 2. Different roles come together to make an Agile software development team. Program monitoring and control. Many Agile documents may be used to generate reliable cost and schedule estimates throughout a program’s life-cycle. Metrics. It is critical that metrics align with and prioritize organization-wide goals and objectives while simultaneously meeting customer needs. Such metrics in Agile include the number of features delivered to customers, the number of defects, and overall customer satisfaction.  Opportunities Flexibility. An Agile approach provides flexibility when customers’ needs change and as technology rapidly evolves. Risk reduction. Measuring progress during frequent iterations can reduce technical and programmatic risk. For example, routine retrospectives allow the team to reflect upon and improve the development process for the next iteration. Quicker deliveries. Through incremental releases, agencies can rapidly determine if newly produced software is meeting their needs. With Agile, these deliveries are typically within months, instead of alternative development methods, which can take years. Challenges GAO has previously reported on challenges the federal government faces in applying Agile methods; for the full report see GAO-12-681. Lack of organizational commitment. For example, organizations need to create a dedicated Agile team, which is a challenge when there is an insufficient number of staff, or when staff have several simultaneous duties. Resources needed to transition to Agile. An organization transitioning to Agile may need to invest in new tools, practices, and processes, which can be expensive and time consuming. Mistrust in iterative solutions. Customers who typically see a solution as a whole may be disappointed by the delivery of a small piece of functionality. Misaligned agency practices. Some agency practices, such as procurement, compliance reviews, federal reporting, and status tracking are not designed to support Agile software development. Policy and Context Questions In what ways can Agile help the federal government improve the management of IT acquisitions and operations, an area GAO has identified as high risk for the federal government? How can policymakers implement clear guidance about the use of Agile software development, such as reporting metrics, to better support Agile methods? How might resources need to shift to accommodate the adoption of Agile in federal agencies? What risks could those shifts pose? What updates to agency practices are worth pursuing to support Agile software development? For more information, contact Tim Persons at (202) 512-6888 or personst@gao.gov.
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    Selected agencies—the Federal Aviation Administration, Indian Health Services, and Small Business Administration—had generally deployed tools intended to provide cybersecurity data to support the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) Continuous Diagnostics and Mitigation (CDM) program. As depicted in the figure, the program relies on automated tools to identify hardware and software residing on agency networks. This information is aggregated and compared to expected outcomes, such as whether actual device configuration settings meet federal benchmarks. The information is then displayed on an agency dashboard and federal dashboard. Continuous Diagnostics and Mitigation Program Data Flow from Agencies to the Federal Dashboard However, while agencies reported that the program improved their network awareness, none of the three agencies had effectively implemented all key CDM program requirements. For example, the three agencies had not fully implemented requirements for managing their hardware. This was due in part to contractors, who install and troubleshoot the tools, not always providing unique identifying information. Accordingly, CDM tools did not provide an accurate count of the hardware on their networks. In addition, although most agencies implemented requirements for managing software, they were not consistently comparing configuration settings on their networks to federal core benchmarks intended to maintain a standard level of security. The agencies identified various challenges to implementing the program, including overcoming resource limitations and not being able to resolve problems directly with contractors. DHS had taken numerous steps to help manage these challenges, including tracking risks of insufficient resources, providing forums for agencies to raise concerns, and allowing agencies to provide feedback to DHS on contractor performance. In 2013, DHS established the CDM program to strengthen the cybersecurity of government networks and systems by providing tools to agencies to continuously monitor their networks. The program, with estimated costs of about $10.9 billion, intends to provide capabilities for agencies to identify, prioritize, and mitigate cybersecurity vulnerabilities. GAO was asked to review agencies' continuous monitoring practices. This report (1) examines the extent to which selected agencies have effectively implemented key CDM program requirements and (2) describes challenges agencies identified in implementing the requirements and steps DHS has taken to address these challenges. GAO selected three agencies based on reported acquisition of CDM tools. GAO evaluated the agencies' implementation of CDM asset management capabilities, conducted semi-structured interviews with agency officials, and examined DHS actions. GAO is making six recommendations to DHS, including to ensure that contractors provide unique hardware identifiers; and nine recommendations to the three selected agencies, including to compare configurations to benchmarks. DHS and the selected agencies concurred with the recommendations. For more information, contact Vijay A. D'Souza at (202) 512-6240 or dsouzav@gao.gov.
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    Research conducted at Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) labs led to 4,446 U.S. patents owned by the agency covering a range of inventions from 1980 through 2019. During that period, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) had 93 patents—2 percent of the total—that contributed to the successful development of 34 drugs approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and brought to market, including vaccines and treatments for cancer. These 34 drugs were developed by pharmaceutical companies and were associated with 32 licenses granted to them by NIH. As shown in the figure, these licenses have generated up to $2 billion in royalty revenue for NIH since 1991, when FDA approved the first of these drugs. Three licenses generated more than $100 million each for the agency. Royalties from NIH Licenses of Inventions Associated with FDA-Approved Drugs, 1991 to February 2020 When licensing its inventions, NIH prioritizes the likelihood that the licensee can successfully develop a drug by considering such factors as technical expertise and the ability to raise capital. Consistent with federal interpretation of technology transfer statutory authorities, NIH does not consider the affordability of the resulting drug. NIH provides limited information to the public about its licensing activities. For example, the agency does not report which of its patents are licensed or release metrics that would enable the public to evaluate how licensing affects patient access to resulting drugs. Increasing the transparency of its licensing activities could improve the public’s and policymakers’ understanding of NIH’s management of its intellectual property. HHS monitors for unauthorized use of its inventions (infringement) and has taken steps to protect its rights. HHS relies primarily on inventors at its labs to monitor for potential infringement and generally encourages potential infringers to license the inventions. If cases proceed to litigation, HHS relies on the Department of Justice (DOJ) to protect its rights. Since 2009, HHS has worked with DOJ to defend its intellectual property in several cases in the U.S. and abroad and has referred one case to DOJ for litigation against an alleged infringer. HHS labs conduct research that can contribute to the development of new life-saving drugs. HHS may grant rights to its inventions by licensing the patents to pharmaceutical companies that conduct the additional development activities and testing necessary to bring drugs to market. Public health experts and patients’ rights advocates have raised concerns about the prices of drugs developed with federal support. GAO was asked to review HHS’s management of its intellectual property. This report examines (1) the extent to which HHS-owned intellectual property has contributed to the development of FDA-approved drugs, (2) what is known about the licenses associated with FDA-approved drugs, (3) factors NIH prioritizes when licensing its inventions and information about licensing it makes public, and (4) steps HHS has taken to protect its rights. GAO reviewed relevant laws and agency documents, analyzed patent and licensing data, and interviewed HHS officials, academic experts, industry representatives, and nongovernmental organizations. GAO is making two recommendations, including that NIH provide more information to the public about the licensing of its intellectual property. HHS concurred with GAO’s recommendations. For more information, contact John Neumann, (202) 512-6888, NeumannJ@gao.gov.
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    Four components—Transportation Security Administration, Coast Guard, Customs and Border Protection, and the Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Office—within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) implemented the process to formally nominate and designate Component Acquisition Executives (CAE). However, four of the five individuals filling the CAE role—three as acting CAE—in the Management Directorate have not been subjected to this process (see figure). The process, described in guidance, entails preparing a nomination package for DHS to vet candidates' qualifications against criteria, and designating the selected individual in writing. Nomination and Designation Status of Department of Homeland Security's Management Directorate Component Acquisition Executives as of April 2020 Note: Non-major acquisitions are those with an expected life-cycle cost of less than $300 million. DHS indicated that the direct reporting relationship of acting CAEs to the DHS Chief Acquisition Officer makes designating CAEs in the Management Directorate through this process unnecessary. Without using the nomination and designation process, DHS officials lack a standard way to gain insight into the background of the acting CAEs and whether any gaps in experience need to be mitigated. For example, the CAE for the Coast Guard was nominated and designated, but the CAE did not have the acquisition experience that guidance suggests for the position. In the nomination documentation, the Coast Guard identified this issue and described the experienced staff that will support the nominated CAE. However, DHS cannot be confident that the acting CAEs in the Management Directorate are taking mitigation steps, because they have not been subject to this process. Until DHS consistently executes the nomination and designation process described in its guidance, the Chief Acquisition Officer cannot be assured that all acquisition programs are receiving oversight by individuals qualified for the CAE position. DHS invests billions of dollars each year in its major acquisition programs—such as systems to help secure the border, increase marine safety, and screen travelers—to help execute its many critical missions. In fiscal year 2020 alone, DHS planned to spend more than $10 billion on major acquisition programs, and ultimately the department plans to invest more than $200 billion over the life cycle of these programs. A critical aspect of DHS's acquisition process is oversight of this portfolio by the CAEs. Most CAEs are senior acquisition officials below the department level, within the components. The CAEs have oversight responsibilities over the components' major and non-major acquisition programs, among other duties. GAO was asked to review DHS's CAE functions. This report assesses the extent to which selected CAEs are nominated and designated to execute oversight responsibilities, among other objectives. GAO selected five DHS components, including the department-level Management Directorate, based, in part, on their number and type of acquisitions. GAO reviewed DHS's acquisition policy, guidance and documentation from the selected DHS components and interviewed CAEs, CAE support staff, and other DHS officials. GAO is making four recommendations, including that DHS execute the CAE nomination and designation process consistently as defined in its guidance. DHS concurred with all four recommendations. For more information, contact Marie A. Mak at (202) 512-4841 or makm@gao.gov.
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    Section 3610 of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act generally authorizes agencies at their discretion to reimburse a contractor for the cost of paid leave incurred during the pandemic so that it can maintain its workforce in a ready state. Between March 2020—when the CARES Act was enacted—and early July 2020, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and each of the seven other agencies in GAO's review issued guidance to implement section 3610. While largely similar, GAO's work identified some differences across these guidance documents, including the extent to which the rates used to calculate these reimbursements could include profit or fees. OMB issued additional guidance on July 14, 2020, that addressed these differences and clarified how agencies should handle each situation. For example, OMB noted that profit or fees should generally not be reimbursed but provided options for addressing situations in which removing profit or fees would be burdensome. OMB advised agencies to report the amount reimbursed using section 3610 authority via contract modifications to the Federal Procurement Data System-Next Generation (FPDS-NG). After excluding reported obligations identified by agency officials as not associated with section 3610 authority, the reported data indicated that agencies made relatively little use of the authority through July 2020 (see figure). However, the Department of Energy (DOE) reimbursed contractors for almost $550 million in paid leave costs, stating it used existing obligations rather than adding funding via a contract modification. As a result, these amounts were not reported to FPDS-NG as section 3610 reimbursements. Obligations Using Section 3610 Authority Reported to the Federal Procurement Data System-Next Generation by Selected Agencies from January 31 to July 20, 2020 Agency officials and industry representatives GAO interviewed identified several factors that limited section 3610 obligations to date, including the absence of dedicated funding. With the exceptions of the Department of Defense (DOD) and DOE, agency officials GAO met with either did not expect a large amount or were uncertain about the level of future requests for section 3610 reimbursements. DOD officials stated that they expected requests amounting to billions of dollars. In March 2020, Congress passed the CARES Act, which provides over $2 trillion in emergency assistance and healthcare response for individuals, families, and businesses affected by COVID-19. The CARES Act also includes a provision for GAO to review federal contracting pursuant to authorities provided in the Act. This report addresses the implementation of section 3610 of the CARES Act, which authorizes federal agencies to reimburse contractors for paid leave related to the COVID-19 pandemic through September 30, 2020. This report describes (1) the extent to which section 3610 implementation guidance provided by selected federal agencies and OMB differs and (2) the extent to which selected federal agencies reported use of section 3610 authority through July 20, 2020. GAO reviewed relevant guidance issued by OMB and the seven federal agencies with contract obligations greater than $10 billion in fiscal year 2019; interviewed cognizant officials from OMB and each agency; and reviewed comments provided by and spoke with representatives from four industry associations. GAO also analyzed public procurement data reported by selected agencies to FPDS-NG through July 20, 2020 on the use of section 3610 authority. GAO will continue to assess how agencies are implementing section 3610 authority as part of a series of planned reports regarding the federal response to COVID-19. For more information, contact Timothy J. DiNapoli at (202) 512-4841 or dinapolit@gao.gov.
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  • Science & Tech Spotlight: Tracing the Source of Chemical Weapons
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    Why This Matters Some governments are suspected of using chemical weapons despite international prohibitions under the Chemical Weapons Convention. For example, sarin and VX nerve gas have been identified in attacks. Most recently, Novichok nerve agent was used in 2020. Technologies exist to identify chemical warfare agents and possibly their sources, but challenges remain in identifying the person or entity responsible. The Technology What is it? According to the Global Public Policy Institute, there have been more than 330 chemical weapons attacks since 2012. Such attacks are prohibited under the Chemical Weapons Convention. A set of methods called forensic chemical attribution has the potential to trace the chemical agent used in such attacks to a source. A set of methods called forensic chemical attribution has the potential to trace the chemical agent used in such attacks to a source. For example, investigators could use these methods to identify the geographic sources of raw materials used to make the agent, for example, or to identify the manufacturing process Such information can aid leaders in deciding on whether or how to respond to a chemical weapons attack. Figure 1. Forensic chemical attribution process How does it work? Forensic chemical attribution is a three-step process, though the third step is being developed (see Fig. 1). First, a sample is taken from a victim or the site of an attack. Second, the sample's chemical components are analyzed and identified (see Fig. 2), either at a mobile lab or at one of 18 authorized biomedical labs worldwide. Common identification methods are: Gas chromatography, which separates chemical components of a mixture and quantifies the amount of each chemical. Mass spectrometry, which measures the mass-to-charge ratio of ions (i.e., charged particles) by converting molecules to ions and separating the ions based on their molecular weight. Nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR), which can determine the structure of a molecule by measuring the interaction between atomic nuclei placed in a magnetic field and exposing it to radio waves. NMR works on is the same principle as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) used in medical diagnostics. In the third step—still under development—investigators use the data from the forensic chemical identification and analysis and identification methods from step two to develop a "chemical fingerprint." The fingerprint can be matched to a database of information on existing methods or known sources to identify chemical agents (i.e., Source A matching Sample 1 of Fig. 2). However, a comprehensive database containing complete, reliable data for known agents does not exist. How mature is it? Forensic chemical analysis and identification (i.e., Step 2 of Fig.1) is mature for known chemical agents. For example, investigators determined the nerve agent sarin was used in an attack on civilians in 2017. The methods can also identify new agents, as when investigators determined the chemical composition of the Novichok nerve agent after its first known use, in 2018. Forensic chemical analysis and identification methods are also mature enough to generate data that investigators could use as a "chemical fingerprint"– that is, a unique chemical signature that could be used in part to attribute a chemical weapon to a person or entity. For example, combining gas chromatography and mass spectrometry can provide reliable information about the chemical components and molecular weight of an agent. To achieve Step 3, scientists could use this these methods in a laboratory experiment to match impurities in chemical feedstocks of the weapon to potentially determine who made it. In an investigation, such impurities could indicate the geographic origin of the starting material and the process used to create the agent. Figure 2. Example of forensic chemical identification and analysis, showing a match between Sample 1 and Source A. Opportunities An effective international system for forensic chemical attribution can open up several opportunities, including: Defense. Knowing the source of a chemical agent could help nations better defend against future attacks and, when appropriate, take military action in response to an attack.  Legal response. Source attribution may provide information to help find and prosecute attackers or to impose sanctions. Deterrence. The ability to trace chemical agents to a source might deter future use of chemical weapons.  Challenges Chemical database. Creating a comprehensive international database of chemical fingerprints would require funding and international collaboration to sample chemicals from around the world. Finding perpetrators. Matching a chemical to its sources does not reveal who actually used it in an attack. Almost all investigations require additional evidence. Samples. Collecting a sufficient sample for attribution can be challenging, as can storing and transporting it using a secure chain of custody—potentially over great distance—to one of the 18 authorized biomedical labs worldwide. International cooperation. Lack of cooperation can delay investigations and may compromise sample quality.  Cooperation is also essential for creating an international database. Standardization. Attribution methods are complex and require standardized, internationally accepted protocols to ensure results are reliable and trusted. Such protocols do not yet exist for attributing a chemical weapons attack. Policy Context and Questions The following questions are relevant to building an effective, trusted system for tracing attacks using forensic chemical attribution: How can federal agencies promote and contribute to the international standardization of scientific methods for forensic chemical attribution? Which agency or agencies should lead this effort? How can the international community create and implement a framework for cooperation and trust in forensic chemical attribution? What actions could promote or incentivize creation of an internationally accepted database of unique chemical fingerprints for attributing chemical agents to their sources? What can be done to fully identify and address the scientific and technological gaps in current capabilities for attributing a chemical agent to its source? For more information, contact Karen Howard at (202) 512-6888 or HowardK@gao.gov.
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  • Commercial Space Transportation: FAA Should Examine a Range of Options to Support U.S. Launch Infrastructure
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