Letter including “‘check’ promises thousands in “‘lottery’ winnings
A 79-year-old woman in a wheelchair who lives in an assisted-living retirement facility and barely makes ends meet doesn’t seem like someone an international fraud ring would want to target.
But an elderly woman I know recently handed me a letter she had received from Canada and asked me what I thought about it. She had read and re-read the letter for days trying to figure out what to make of it.
“Maybe I’m about to get rich,” she said. “I know it can’t be real, but I keep thinking it might be.”
It was a curious envelope one without a return address. It bore a Canadian postage stamp and her name and address handwritten on it.
But the contents were of a more professional nature. It was a typed, official-looking letter with her name and address and a letterhead identifying the sender as a “lottery, resources management and payment verification” company based in the Virgin Islands. The company claimed to represent popular legitimate sweepstakes companies well known to the American public. It contained a typewritten check made payable to her in the amount of $3,250. It was purported to be drawn on a U.S. bank.
I read the letter several times before reaching a conclusion about it. The presence of a check in the letter confused me.
The letter claimed the woman was one of six people who had each won $250,000 through a “random computer ballot system” lottery drawn from 500,000 people. The proceeds of the check had been deducted from the lottery winning, but the winner “will be using some money on this first check to pay for applicable taxes,” it said.
The letter told the woman that she would be required to pay the taxes either by Western Union or Moneygram but not to do anything with the enclosed check before calling the “claim agent for further clarification and instructions.” After the taxes were received, the balance of the winning would be sent either by certified check or wire transfer to the checking account number the woman provided, according to the letter.
Of course, I realized it had to be a scam, and I told her so. But I decided to call the Nova Scotia number on the letter and talk to the “claim agent” to see what I could learn about the con artists.
A man with an accent that sounded like he could be of Caribbean descent answered the phone. I told him I was calling for “my aunt” to find out how she could obtain her winnings. He agreed to talk to me about a “few of the details” after verifying that she was more than 70 years of age. I could sense he was wary of me, but he talked on.
He told me that my “aunt” needed to send $2,950 of the proceeds of the check that was enclosed in the envelope to another organization to pay the taxes on the winnings. He advised me that the check she had received should be deposited into her bank account, and he promised that it would clear within two days. After the $2,950 in taxes was received, she would be sent the balance of the $250,000 prize, he said.
When I told him I was a reporter and that I knew he was trying to pull a scam, he indignantly denied the allegation. He criticized me for meddling in the woman’s business and for misrepresenting my intentions.
I persisted, asking him how his conscience could allow him to deceive elderly people and defraud them. “She doesn’t have to do anything if she doesn’t want to,” he said.
Finally, he hung up on me. I called back twice, but he never answered the phone again.
Then I called the Texas Attorney General’s office. A spokeswoman confirmed that it was a well-known scam. The con artists hope that their targets will either cash the checks through their personal bank accounts or through a check-cashing service and wire the cash as the bogus lottery representation company instructs. The payee winds up being responsible for the loss when the fake check bounces.
The spokeswoman said scam artists prey on elderly people because they are more easily taken in. “Never send money to someone who calls or writes to you,” she said. “Legitimate companies will not ask you for money. And never give them any personal information or account numbers.”
She directed me to the Texas Attorney General’s Web site, which contains a warning about scam artists targeting elderly people.
I faxed a copy of the letter to the Texas Attorney General’s office so they could add it to the list of scam artists operating around the world. I also called the FBI and the Secret Service. An FBI spokeswoman said there is little that can be done about these companies because they operate outside of the U.S. A Secret Service spokesman told me to make sure the check was shredded so nothing could be done with it later.
Everyone I talked with had the same thing to say in closing: “I’m glad she didn’t lose anything.” It seems that many elderly people are not so fortunate, and some even wind up losing everything they’ve got.
As it turns out, the elderly woman who received the letter wound up depositing the check after all: As I talked on the phone to her about what I had learned, I heard water running in the background. She was in the process of tearing the check up and flushing it down the toilet.
It was a fitting end to a devious scheme.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition, April 27, 2007.