Same old lottery scam that people keep falling for
Melissa A. Garcia, a financially strapped single mother, rejoiced last month when she received a letter proclaiming she had won $65,000 in the Horizon Empire Sweepstakes.
The letter even came with a legitimate-looking business check for $2,450.80. The money, the letter stated, was supposed to cover "taxes and clearance fees" so Garcia could claim her prize.
"I thought it was my way out of all the things I've been through," said Garcia, 28, a mother of a 3-year-old daughter who works as a debt collector and lives with her uncle in Belmar, Monmouth County.
But the letter's promised deliverance never came.
Garcia narrowly averted losing $2,300 in a mail scam officials say has targeted at least 800 local residents, most of them senior citizens in Ocean County. In at least three cases in the past two years, residents lost a total of $123,000.
One man was defrauded of $80,000, said Cindy E. Boyd, a senior investigator who heads the Senior Scam Task Force for the Ocean County Prosecutor's Office. In two other cases, a mother and son lost $27,000, and a senior woman lost $16,000.
Boyd and other officials say the scam works like this: A letter arrives in the mail announcing the recipient has won a lottery or sweepstakes. The phony lottery appears under many names, such as the Spanish Lottery, the International Lottery or the Switzerland Lottery.
Enclosed is a check, usually for $2,000 to $10,000, and directs the winner to call a phone number. The recipient is then instructed to deposit the check in his or her bank account. After the check is deposited, the supposed lottery winner is told to transfer, by wire, about the same amount of money back to the lottery, to pay for taxes or fees.
However, the lottery's check to the winner bounces within days because it is drawn on a phony or closed bank account. However, the victim has lost real money, the thousands of dollars sent to the scammers via a wire or money order service.
The phone numbers the victim calls are typically linked to cell phones in Canada, Boyd said.
If a victim does wire away money, then the perpetrators call and ask for more. They keep asking until the victim finally gives up or goes broke.
Boyd said she has trained bank tellers in Ocean County to spot the bogus checks and to question residents about suspicious transactions. One resident recently wired away $16,000 over five days and was about to withdraw money off her credit card before a teller questioned her about it.
When the woman told the teller about "winning the lottery," the teller informed her she was being taken by a scam and then called police.
"The woman almost had a heart attack," Boyd said. "She was hoping to leave money for her grandchildren.
"So far, police and local banks have stopped $4.2 million in bogus checks from being cashed over the past two years, Boyd said.
"I ask people why they send the money," Boyd said. "The majority tell me they're greedy. Others tell me they were stupid. And some say they wanted to have some money for their family."
Stephen Scaturro, director of the Ocean County Consumer Affairs office, said he and Boyd have been warning residents about the scam in public service announcements on cable television.
Scaturro said he tells residents: "If you have to pay to win a prize, it's not a prize; it's a scam.
About 100 complaints have been filed with the Ocean County Consumer Affairs office. Monmouth County Consumer Affairs director Patricia Watson said she has only two complaints about the lottery scam.
Belmar's Garcia did deposit the scammer's check in her bank, but narrowly avoided being taken. She called the telephone number in the letter and started asking questions about why she had to send $2,300 via Western Union. Her uncle, Barry Shambaugh, also got on the phone with the supposed lottery representative, who said he would talk to a supervisor and call them back.
The scammer never called again and no one has answered that telephone number since, Garcia said.
Her ultimate loss: $10. That was from the bank's bounced check fee for the phony lottery deposit.
"It's enough to make you mad," Garcia said. "Somebody is building your hopes up and then tearing everything away from you. They're bums. They're taking money away from hardworking people while they do nothing but steal people's money."