BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — A woman who was the victim of a Jamaican lottery scam told a federal jury Wednesday that she received a postcard in June 2012 at her Madison, South Dakota, home from a company called American Cash Awards asking for $10 to enter a sweepstakes.
She said she talked it over with her husband and mailed the money.
"I thought, all right, we've spent $10 a lot worse ways," Doug Erickson said during testimony.
What followed was a yearslong nightmare that has wiped out most of their savings and an inheritance from Kathy Erickson's mother. Authorities say the couple is among more than 70 victims who were duped out of a total of $5 million in a Jamaican lottery scheme that preyed upon mostly elderly and vulnerable citizens in the United States.
It's a story the Ericksons had not repeated to anybody, except Doug's dad, before testifying Wednesday in the trial of Sanjay Williams, of Montego Bay, Jamaica. Williams is accused of buying and selling so-called "sucker lists" with the names of potential victims for callers to exploit. The investigation originated with a victim from Harvey, North Dakota.
A month after sending in the postcard, Kathy Erickson received a call that she had won $3.5 million, a Mercedes-Benz and a year's worth of Geico car insurance. She said she told the caller she didn't believe him. But after calls from official-sounding people and an email with a letterhead from a large national bank, the couple started what Doug Erickson called a "vicious cycle" by sending in $14,000 supposedly to cover possession, insurance and clearance fees.
The scammers were relentless in demanding more money. Doug Erickson said he received dozens of calls a day on his cellphone. The callers claimed to be from the FBI, Internal Revenue Service and Federal Reserve Bank. They assured the Ericksons that the contest was legitimate and the prize was on its way — if they sent more money.
When the Ericksons finally begged to be left alone, as they both testified, two people who claimed to be from an outfit called the World Bank Investigations offered to look into the problem — if they sent more money.
"They made it so a guy could not just leave it. Everybody lined up," Doug Erickson said. "I'm a trusting person. We come from a town where you don't have to worry about crime. You don't have to worry about trust. You trust everybody. Now I'm at the point where I don't believe nothin' from nobody."
The Ericksons were among several victims to testify Wednesday, including a home health care worker from Cincinnati who still sent money to an alleged scammer after the FBI contacted her about the fraud. All of the victims who have testified so far say they have not heard of or met Williams.
Williams, 25, has pleaded not guilty to conspiracy, wire fraud and money laundering. His lawyer, Charlie Stock, said Wednesday during his questioning of an FBI special agent that investigators did not look into whether his client was himself a victim of identity theft. Stock pointed to one incident in which Williams' email was hacked.
The lawyer has implied that prosecutors have the wrong guy.
The trial is expected to last until the end of next week.