Con artists broaden focus beyond elderly
Charles Kane found $4 million in his northwest Charlotte mailbox Monday.
The retired salesman plucked three letters promising big lottery winnings in exchange for processing fees from $5 to $25. He's received almost two dozen such letters since August; recently he broke down and sent a total of $50 to three places.
"I had a couple of bucks in the bank and thought, 'What do I have to lose?' " Kane said. "Then I thought, 'What the hell am I doing?' "
Lottery scams are on the rise again.
The schemes start small, such as the letters Kane received, but they can escalate and cost some unwitting consumers thousands . Some people are losing more than $100,000.
The North Carolina Department of Justice warned consumers and banks about lottery and check scams on Monday.
Nearly 400 people have reported to state officials about losing money in lottery schemes this year -- just under the total for all of last year. Lottery-scam complaints to the Charlotte-region Better Business Bureau are up 80 percent from a year ago to more than 1,400.
Lottery scams have always targeted the elderly. Complaints are growing because crooks now also take aim at younger victims. A common thread: desperate people.
Kane, 76, started getting the mailings soon after his wife was diagnosed with cancer. He responded to a few soon after she passed away.
"You see this image of buying a new vehicle and of traveling, getting everything that's happening out of your system," he said. "You don't think about the crooks."
By responding, Kane and others like him open themselves to more scams, such as those involving bad checks, said David Kirkman, an assistant state attorney general.
More elaborate scammers often say victims need to send more money to receive their winnings, but offer to repay them with a check. Victims send the scammers the fee, usually around $1,000 to $5,000, and then cash the bogus check they receive later at their bank.
Banks are having a hard time catching sophisticated counterfeit checks, Kirkman said.
"Half the time these are very real-looking checks with real bank account numbers," he said. Sometimes the checks don't get caught for weeks until someone complains about money wrongly withdrawn from their account, he said.
Charlotte's Bank of America and Wachovia said Monday they take steps to protect customers, including posting general scam warnings on their Web sites.
But bank spokeswomen did not discuss steps employees take to spot potentially fraudulent checks.
Don't Be a Victim
- Never wire money to a stranger. You won't get it back.
- Don't send bank account information or a check to people you don't know. (Change account numbers if you have.)
- Reputable organizations don't require pre-payment to claim a prize.
- Participating in foreign lotteries in the mail or over the phone is illegal.