The first call came in December.
"How are you? How's your day? We have a wonderful thing to tell you," a 65-year-old Ocean County woman said of her first telephone conversation with the Jamaican-sounding strangers.
"They said I had won an award," the woman said. "(The prizes) ranged from $1.5 million to over $5.5 million."
The callers told her she had to send them money to purchase stamps so that her prize could be delivered. She sent the money, but then she got more phone calls with various explanations of why the prize hadn't come, and that more money was needed, she said.
Before long, the telephone calls were nonstop, and the woman was making as many as five trips a day to Western Union and Moneygram offices to wire funds to strangers in Jamaica and Costa Rica, in amounts ranging from $45 to $1,600, she said.
She never saw a prize, despite sending $40,000 overseas to collect it.
"This went on for 10 months," said the woman, a retiree living alone in a senior-citizen development who spoke to the Asbury Park Press on the condition of anonymity. "They bombard your brain, making you feel completely exhausted with all their phone calls, every time of the day and night. . . . Nonstop, every time you hang up the phone, it rings again. . . . You feel so tense.
"I changed my phone number seven or eight times," she said. "They would get my new number."
Sgt. Cynthia E. Boyd, who heads the Ocean County Prosecutor's Senior Scam Task Force, said the woman is among about 10 senior citizens in Ocean County who were conned in the past year by lottery scams originating in Jamaica.
The lottery scam is a classic ruse that gets people to fork over cash on the belief they will receive a sweepstakes prize, although a legitimate lottery will never ask you for money to collect a prize.
Boyd conservatively estimated the total amount of money lost by the seniors to lottery scams in the county in the past year at $250,000.
But the lottery scam is not the only one targeting area seniors. The so-called "granny scam" has also resurfaced in the area in the past year, Boyd said.
In a granny scam, grifters call senior citizens, claiming to be their grandchildren, and use emotional pitches to garner their cash.
In the latest strain of granny scams, men call their elderly victims from Canada, claiming to be grandsons who have been arrested for drunken driving or drugs and saying they need bail money, Boyd said. If the senior citizen doesn't recognize the caller's voice, the caller comes up with an explanation, like having a cold. Often, someone claiming to be a lawyer will be put on the phone with the senior citizen to make the situation seem legitimate.
About eight senior citizens in Ocean County fell prey to that scam within the past year, each wiring amounts ranging from $2,400 to $2,800 overseas to strangers, Boyd said.
One was an elderly man from Manchester who sent $2,800 to Spain when told his grandson was arrested in Canada, she said. Then he got another phone call telling him the bail bondsman died in a car crash after picking up the money, and he needed to send more, she said. The elderly man refused the second request, called his son and learned his grandson wasn't in Canada at all, she said.
The scammers pull on the heartstrings and play on the emotions of their elderly victims, Boyd said.
"Seniors are very trusting," she said. "They want to see the good in people, and they're compassionate."
But after the Senior Scam Task Force was formed in 2003, Boyd said she has had more than 1,000 speaking engagements throughout the county to educate the elderly about the methods con artists will use to take their cash, and the scams seemed to subside for awhile, Boyd said.
The task force was created by Toms River Mayor Thomas F. Kelaher when he was the county prosecutor to combat crimes against the elderly in a county that is home to 90 retirement communities and where senior citizens make up about almost a quarter of the population.
The scams turn up in Monmouth County from time to time, and the Monmouth County Prosecutor's Office will send detectives to speak to senior groups about them, when requested, First Assistant Prosecutor Peter Warshaw said.
In Ocean County, the effort extends to educating bank employees to notify authorities if they suspect something when a senior citizen makes a big withdrawal, said Ocean County Prosecutor Marlene Lynch Ford.
"We have such a high concentration of older citizens living here," Ford said. "That's what is the distinguishing factor here.
"The senior task force is very efficient in identifying the scams and, more importantly, getting the word out to the public," she said.
Boyd said she wants to get the word out about the granny scams that have re-emerged, as well as the Jamaican lottery scams, which also are under investigation by a multi-agency, international task force formed by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
In the past, many of the lottery scams originated in Nigeria, but in the current Jamaican scams that are making the rounds, con artists verbally harass the victims and sometimes threaten violence if they don't get what they want, Boyd said.
The con artists work from what they call "sucker lists" of vulnerable targets, she said.
"A lot of them used the F-word many times when I refused to cooperate with their requests for money," said the 65-year-old woman who was conned out of $40,000. "They just got really mad and went into tirades.
"What scared me is, they told me the color of my house and that I was 16 houses in from the corner, and I couldn't believe that they would know that, and I went outside and counted, and they were exactly correct," she said.
But for the most part, the con artists on the phone were charming, even flirtatious, she said. One of them told her he would like to marry her, she said.
"They are amazing at convincing you they are very sincere and very real," she said. "They pull you in to make you feel that they're really concerned about you and you have a kind of closeness to them. It's very disheartening."
The flow of money out of the woman's bank account had the obvious effects — canceled credit cards and penalties for writing checks with insufficient funds.
"There were times I had no food for myself or my doggies," she said. "I ended up with nothing. Now, I have to repay the bills with fines."
But the effects weren't just financial.
"Psychologically, I developed severe anxiety, and my body became fatigued all the time, because I didn't know when a call would come or if they would arrive here," the woman said.
"I became very isolated because I was ashamed about having participated in this kind of activity," she said. "I withdrew from friends."
When the woman's physician questioned her recently about the source of her obvious anxiety, she told him about the lottery scam, and he urged her to report it to the Prosecutor's Office, she said.
Even since going to the authorities, the scammers continue to call.
"They promise you Mercedes. They promise you BMWs. You never get anything," she said.
Despite that, the woman said she still wants to believe.
"It still hasn't gotten to me that it's purely a scam," she said. "There's still a part of me that thinks this is still a possibility."
Additional Facts: Tips to Avoid Being Conned
- Remember that international lotteries are illegal in the United States;
- Be aware that you do not have to pay to receive a legitimate prize;
- Never send money or give out personal information if you are solicited by phone, mail or email;
- If you think you are a victim, or if a con artist threatens you or appears at your door, contact your local police and the Prosecutor's Office.
- Do not destroy original documents, checks or money wire transfer receipts, and turn them over to the Prosecutor's Office.
Source: Ocean County Prosecutor's Senior Scam Task Force.