A Francestown, New Hampshire, couple already living on the edge came close to financial ruin after almost getting sucked into what authorities suspect was a foreign lottery scam.
"We thought the check was our answer to a lot of prayers," said Susan Gadwah, who received notice through the mail last week she was a $450,000 winner in a Canadian lottery, along with a check for $4,700 — to cover non-Canadian residency tax deducted from her winnings.
When she went to a Goffstown branch of Bank of America Friday to cash the $4,700 check, everything seemed on the up-and-up.
"I told the teller that I'd like to cash this check, and she scanned it under the blue document light, which validated it. Then she went to the vault to get the money and was in the process of counting it out," Gadwah said. "It sailed right through."
Scam targets Ronald and Susan "Suki" Gadwah sit in their Francestown home with a copy of the check and letter sent to them telling them they had won a Canadian lottery. The letter indicated they had won a large amount of money and would need to remit $2,800 fee to cover taxes.
That's when her husband, Ronald, said in passing to the teller, "Can you believe she won the lottery?"
Big red flag — in the shape of a Canadian Maple Leaf.
"She took the letter and the check from me, came back, and said it was counterfeit," Gadwah said. "Had I taken the money and left, I would've been the one in trouble."
According to the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, consumers send $120 million a year to those running bogus lottery schemes.
The Federal Trade Commission has long warned about such scams, noting they often are based in Canada. Federal law enforcement authorities have intercepted and destroyed millions of foreign lottery mailings sent or delivered by the truckload into the United States.
In Gadwah's case, everything about her letter — issued by Suntrust Finance Inc. out of Halifax, Nova Scotia, and check, endorsed by Internet Escrow Services, in Irvine, Calif., and drawn on Bank of America — looked authentic, even to the bank teller, Gadwah said.
Enclosed with the check was a letter informing Gadwah that she was "winner in the second category of a lottery draw held June 6, 2007," from a group drawing made for all "one-time participants of a national state lottery sweepstakes in the last five years."
Yes, she had purchased a Canadian lottery ticket several years ago, which made it easier to believe she might actually have won something.
But instead of depositing the check in her own bank account, as instructed to do in the letter, then drawing out a portion of the money once it cleared to send back to the company, Gadwah decided to take the direct route to her winnings: She took the check to the nearest branch of the originating bank, Bank of America.
"I was a little leery about calling some number in Canada and giving them my personal information," Gadwah said.
It was a move that probably saved her from financial ruin.
"The first thing I was going to do was pay off these medical bills," Gadwah said.
Her husband, a disabled Vietnam veteran, suffers from liver disease. He was injured in a parachuting accident during the war and has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. After years of "self-medicating," her husband, at 58, has had several near-death experiences, accounting for the pile of medical bills they can't afford to pay.
"You have no idea how exciting it was to think we'd actually won something, only to have it turn out like this," Gadwah said. "If we got as close to cashing that check as we did, I would think there are others out there who might get scammed, too."
Yesterday, a supervisor at the bank branch said she couldn't comment and referred questions to corporate headquarters.
According to the U.S. Postal Service, foreign lottery scams are among the top-five most costly frauds for unwitting consumers.
In fact, reports of similar scams abound on the Internet, posted on consumer self-help sites by those who weren't as lucky as Gadwah. Some of the most recent postings detail Canadian lottery scam letters that read, word for word, like Gadwah's letter.
A warning posted three years ago on www.usps.com reads, in part:
"Most — if not all — foreign lottery come-ons sent to U.S. addresses through the mail are bogus. They don't come from foreign government agencies or licensees. Instead, they come from con artists who take your money and give you nothing in return. A federal statute prohibits mailing payments to purchase any ticket, share, or chance in a foreign lottery. Except for state-owned and operated lotteries, federal law prohibits sending lottery material through the mail."
A call placed Friday night by the New Hampshire Union Leader to the phone number listed on Gadwah's letter was answered "Sun Trust" by a male with a heavy foreign accent. When told the call pertained to a bad check sent out by the company, and a request was made to speak to a manager, the man hung up the phone.
A follow-up call minutes later went unanswered.
Gadwah said she made sure she got copies of the check and the letter from the teller. She plans to follow up with the proper authorities.
"On a Friday, you can't get a hold of anyone. All I could do was call my local police, who said it's not in their jurisdiction," Gadwah said.
Francestown Police Officer Ken Whicker, who spoke Friday with the Gadwahs, said anyone in New Hampshire who gets a letter from California saying they won a Canadian lottery should smell a scam in progress — just based on the geographical improbabilities of it all.
"I'm not saying anything bad about Canada — they're our neighbors, and we love them. I'm just saying that the combination of circumstances, in this case, ought to tip somebody off that it's not real," Whicker said.
For the Gadwahs, life will go. Their house, which has been up for sale for months, is languishing in a buyer's market.
"We're trying to sell our property and move to West Virginia so he can get treatment," Gadwah said. "We've been told things are better down there for veterans."
In the end, Gadwah said, she's mostly relieved that her troubles weren't compounded by bank fraud charges.
"To get a letter like this, that could be the answer to all our prayers, only to find it could've been the worse nightmare of my life," Gadwah said. "Yeah, I guess you could say I feel lucky."
Editor: More extensive information about lottery scams, including actual letters and checks sent to potential victims, can be found at USA Mega, at the following web address: http://www.usamega.com/lottery-scams.asp