Lotteries urge players to be wary of the telltale signs you are being scammed
By Kate Northrop
A scammer from New Jersey tricked three elderly women across the country into sending her over $675,000 by convincing them that they owed "prepaid taxes" as a prerequisite for claiming a prize that didn't exist.
According to the U.S. Attorney's Office for New Jersey, Shanile Lyle, 27, of Orange was charged on Monday with one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud after wrongly convincing her victims that they won a nonexistent prize and must pay a sum in order to claim it.
Lyle had telephoned several elderly women in June 2018 with false congratulations and promises of big winnings. In one instance, she managed to convince a 94-year-old woman from Hawaii that she won a $6 million prize from the Publishers Clearing House (PCH) Sweepstakes. The end result? She sent Lyle over 20 checks worth over $500,000.
Upon receiving the checks, Lyle would then deposit them into her own accounts before transferring some of the money to her unnamed co-conspirators.
It is not uncommon for a scammer to claim that they are affiliated with PCH. According to the organization, winners of prizes more than a couple hundred dollars will never be contacted by email, bulk mail, or telephone, rather a representative will either appear in person to deliver the news or send a certified letter.
"At PCH the winning is always free and you NEVER have to pay to claim a prize," their website reads. "If someone contacts you claiming to be from PCH, and tells you that you've won a prize — then asks you to send a payment or money card in order to claim the prize — STOP! You have not heard from the real PCH."
Lyle's second victim was a 75-year-old woman from Kentucky, who was convinced by Lyle that she won a $2 million prize and a car. Not only was she duped into purchasing cell phones and gift cards, but she sent the fraudster checks worth $30,000.
Lyle then defrauded a third person, an 86-year-old woman from Indiana. Similarly to the victim from Kentucky, she phoned up the woman and told her that she won a "large sum of money and an automobile," according to court documents. She sent Lyle about $20,000.
The checks the scammer and her conspirators received from her victims totaled at least $675,000.
The maximum penalty for committing wire fraud is a sentence of 20 years in prison and a fine of $250,000, or twice the pecuniary gain to the defendant or twice the gross loss involved, whichever is greater. Lyle was released on a $200,000 unsecured bond.
With the risk of COVID-19 transmission influencing every decision about how we interact with others, many family members will undoubtedly stay at home this holiday season to avoid either contracting or transmitting the coronavirus to their loved ones. For the elderly, loneliness compounded with the isolation many will face this winter means that lottery scammers have more susceptible targets to defraud.
The Montana Lottery warned players on Tuesday of the telltale signs that someone is attempting to defraud you. One might notice that the New Jersey scammer followed a classic formula that is often used to target particularly vulnerable citizens, such as the elderly.
Many scammers, like Lyle, will send their victims an unsolicited letter, email, or phone call claiming to be a representative of an organization, including a private sweepstakes firm, a lottery commission, or even a legitimate lottery in a foreign country. These messages and calls all deliver all kinds of false congratulatory statements — "Congratulations, you've won!" or "You're a lucky winner!"
However, the easiest way to tell that it is a scam is if the supposed "representative" of the organization tells the victim that they must wire money as a fee or form of prepaid taxes. Scammers will likely request that money be wired since it is harder to trace.
"You'll never win a legitimate lottery you didn't enter," Montana Lottery Director Angela Wong stated in a press release. "You'll never be asked to pay upfront for a legitimate lottery prize, and you'll never be contacted out of the blue by a legitimate lottery."
A legitimate Lottery will never, ever contact someone to tell them that they've won a prize. An official Lottery only knows the winning numbers on a ticket and where it was sold, but they have no way of knowing who won until the winner steps forward. If a player is in possession of a ticket but does not know whether their ticket is a winner, they should contact Lottery officials.
It is also impossible to win a lottery or contest that you never entered, nor will a winner ever be asked to pay a sum of money prior to receiving a prize. Federal and state taxes are automatically deducted from a prize before it is awarded to a winner. The only price a player pays is the price of the ticket they bought.
Scammers might also contact their potential victims claiming to be affiliated with a lottery from a foreign government. The sale of tickets for lotteries of foreign countries in the United States is illegal, therefore this is indicative of a scam.
"These scams can really impact your finances and cost you tens of thousands of dollars," Attorney General Tim Fox said. "Scammers prey upon people who live alone, and since the pandemic has led to more isolation, bad actors see this current situation as an opportunity to target people, often senior citizens. Fortunately, by knowing the red flags and exercising caution, consumers can almost totally shield themselves from the lottery scam."