In the Star-Telegram "Watchdog" column, Dave Lieber recounts how an 86-year-old man did the right thing by not getting hooked in by lottery scammers again.
For more than a year, George Kahak has followed my request that he call me before investing any more money in get-rich schemes. The 86-year-old former chief pilot for American Airlines is a compulsive scam victim. He's lost tens of thousands of dollars in dozens of scams.
The other day, he called to say that he won $500,000 in a lottery and that the contest promoters were coming over to his house to explain the details.
Turns out, they didn't visit. They called instead. I was there. That's how I got to talk to Inspector Luigi.
He called Kahak. I took the phone and explained that Kahak was hard of hearing and that I was there to help him.
"My name is Inspector Luigi Azarelo, and I work with the U.S. Customs Department" at Miami Airport.
"I was the federal agent in charge of an investigation on a package he has here right now at the airport. I did confirm with the Federal Trade Commission directly with the consumer protection program that the sender is registered as a sweepstakes company out of Vegas.
"We receive about 100 packages a day just like this every day, and 98 percent are not for real. We just send them back because they have fraudulent activity."
The rest, he said, are "100 percent for real."
"The only thing — this package I'm holding here to be released [has] pending duties and tariffs that were not paid when this package got registered down in Costa Rica.
"Even though I'm sure the package is legit, my job is to send it back. What I do now is I just take two minutes out of my day to make a courtesy call to the owner of the package. Maybe if you wanted to go ahead and claim it, I can give you information on how to claim it. If not, I'll just go ahead and send it back. It's really the same to me."
I said, "Let me get a pencil."
The cost for "customs duties and tariffs" was $1,500.
"What's in the package?" I asked.
"Oh, a check for a total of $495,000."
"For what exactly?"
He said the sweepstakes company was authentic. He had confirmed that with the Federal Trade Commission.
"This is coming from Costa Rica. I'm pretty sure you know that all the sweepstakes companies have their money offshore. Every time you win money, it's totally free of taxes because they keep their money offshore. That's why when he receives that money, he will not be paying taxes on it."
I offered to bring the payment to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection office in Texas. But he didn't like that idea.
"I recommend you use Western Union. They take cash. They will give you a receipt with a 10-digit control number. You need to call me back with that number. As soon as I get in contact with the people down in Costa Rica and they confirm that it was sent, I'll be sending the package.
"Now you know I'm located at the Miami Airport. So I do have flights to Texas every 25 minutes. It will be a matter of a few hours before you have the package in your hand. Sounds good?"
He said to send $1,595 to Armando Lopez-Canteno, 1801 Central Ave., San Jose, Costa Rica.
Then he promised to call back with information about the flight delivering the package to Texas.
"Let me ask you, sir. How long do you think it's going to take? Because I do have to schedule the flight for you."
That moment, Kahak's clock, beside the phone, began to chime on the hour mark. The sound disrupted the call until I said, "That's perfect. My alarm is about to go off on you."
I told Inspector Luigi that I work as The Watchdog at the Star-Telegram and that I often write about "guys like you."
My schedule? I explained that I would share his story with you in today's column.
Then I asked something I always wanted to know: Why would a good communicator like him waste his skills on hurting the elderly?
"What are you talking about, sir?" he asked.
I said I was certain he was not who he said he was. There was no contest. He lied.
"Sir, you've got to be careful. You're talking to a federal agent. . . . I'm located on Concourse J, up on the third level, OK? You want to look for me, look around. If you don't, just lose your package."
He hung up.
A few days later, I called again. Inspector Luigi picked up. I recognized his voice.
"We got cut off last week," I said.
"Let me transfer you," he said. "Just one second."
The call was disconnected.
Called back. Same guy. But not according to him.
"He's out of the terminal," he insisted. "Can I have you call him back?"
U.S. Customs and Border Protection says its officers never notify an individual by phone and demand payment on a foreign lottery prize. There is no duty on currency or monetary instruments imported into the United States.
Thanks, George, for calling me.