SoCal retiree recoups $160,000 after lottery scam

AP News
Posted: Mar 10, 2011 8:29 PM
SoCal retiree recoups $160,000 after lottery scam

The phone caller had fantastic news _ the 87-year-old widower had won $3.3 million in the Canadian sweepstakes, but there was hitch to claiming the prize _ taxes had to be paid upfront.

There was another hitch _ it was all bogus.

The retired Los Angeles engineer, whose identity was not released, didn't find that out until long after he had mailed $160,000 in checks last year to a Quebec address and was waiting patiently for his winnings.

"It's a very common scam, usually targeting elderly senior citizens," said Claude Arnold, special agent in charge of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement's Homeland Security Investigations unit, which investigates transnational crime. "Oftentimes, they're all too willing to send the money."

The case involving the Los Angeles senior citizen was unusual in that he recovered his money, which represented most of his life savings. Most victims aren't so lucky, said Arnold, who returned the checks to the retiree on Wednesday.

These telemarketing swindles, which are often based in Canada and Jamaica, are so widespread that ICE has had a special unit dubbed Project Colt working on them since 1998, from both U.S. and overseas offices.

This recent scam started unfolding last April, when two women purporting to be from the Internal Revenue Service and the U.S. Department of Justice phoned the octogenarian, saying he had won the lottery in Canada, according to an ICE statement

It didn't come completely out of the blue _ he had played the Canadian sweepstakes and won small amounts before.

The women continued calling, a couple times a week, building a rapport with him. They even had a man phone him with news of a prize, but then told their victim that they found out the other caller was a swindler in a ruse to make him believe they were on his side.

They pressed him to send cash to pay the taxes so he could claim his lottery money. He refused to mail cash, instead sending three cashier's and bank checks.

Meanwhile, across the country, a Rockville, Md., woman who had sent cash to the callers was getting suspicious. She complained to Montgomery County Sheriff's Department, who notified the U.S. Postal Service.

The alert went out to Project Colt members: ICE, Canada Post and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

Agents raided the Montreal post-office box address and found $39,600 cash in a dozen envelopes from the woman in Maryland and victims in Chicago, Merced, Calif., Asheboro, N.C., Wabash, Ind., and Wakefield, R.I., as well as the checks from the Los Angeles man.

No arrests were made, but the investigation is ongoing.

Arnold noted that the thieves make random calls until they hit an easy mark, then they persist until they get their money.

They are elusive targets for law enforcement, using overseas bases to complicate prosecution, disposable cell phones that can't be traced and fake identities to rent a slew of postal boxes. The only way to capture them is stake out a postal address until they arrive to pick up the mail.

"It's a small window of opportunity," Arnold said.

Project Colt, which estimated the scams have bilked consumers of at least $280 million, has arrested 175 people in the United States and Canada, and obtained 74 convictions.

Arnold said it's an ongoing effort to educate the public. "If it's too good to be true, it really is," he said.