A 28-year-old Franklin, New Jersey man got a letter in the mail indicating he had won more than $600,000 in Spain's El Gordo Sweepstakes Lottery program. But over a two-week period, that Franklin man wound up withdrawing money from his bank account, taking cash advances on his credit card, borrowing from family and losing about $41,000 to the lottery scam.
And police say it's unlikely the money will ever be recovered.
Now the warehouse worker, who asked that his name not be used, is taking out a home equity loan so he can repay the money he borrowed from his credit card, his sister and his brother-in-law. He said he is having trouble sleeping at night and no longer knows who to trust.
"It's a lot of money," he said. "I don't know what to think. It's terrible. I don't know who to believe anymore."
Detective Pat Colligan said the con used to swindle the Franklin man out of his money is a variation on a common scheme. In many cases, victims receive letters or e-mails from people who say they need to get money out of their own country, so they offer to hand over a percentage of cash in exchange for help.
In this case, the Franklin man received a letter in January that appeared to be from Madrid, Spain.
It said he'd won third prize in El Gordo (Spanish for "the fat one") lottery. The con artists then gave the victim the name and Web site of a bank that was supposed to be in Barcelona, but police believe it was a fraudulent Web site. The victim was also given a phone number to contact officials about his supposed prize, police said.
The victim spoke with a man who requested personal information. The victim gave it to him.
The con artists also sent a letter that appeared to be from the Federal Ministry of Finance of Madrid, Spain, but it was filled with misspellings, often a tip-off to a con, said Colligan.
The man was told he needed to pay a 2 percent tax on his winnings, a little more than $12,000, so he sent the cash, police said.
Then he received a letter that was supposed to be from a Swiss bank, saying the financial institution had the lottery winnings, but the Franklin man had not meet the financial obligations for the release of the funds.
The requests for cash continued until he dventually wired $15,000 of his own cash, $15,000 from a cash advance on a credit card, and about $11,000 he borrowed from family members, said Colligan.
He wired the funds to Italy between Feb. 3 and Feb. 20, and he also wound up sending his date of birth, Social Security number and information about his bank and next of kin.
The victim's brother called police on Feb. 27.
Colligan said police are forwarding the information they collected about the case to federal postal inspectors.
But the detective said police are faced with several problems: they have limited subpoena power outside of the United States; the telephone numbers used in the scams are based in foreign countries and are virtually impossible to trace; and the wire transfers add to the anonymity because anyone can enter an overseas wire service office with fake identification to pick up cash.
The victim said his wife tried to stop him from sending money, but he said each time he paid, he was made to feel he would get his lottery winnings the next day.
"You keep paying them, and you never get the money," he said.
He also said he does not want other people to go through what he did.
"If you get that (sort of letter), if it's not certified, just throw it out -- it's junk mail," he said.
Police say consumers should suspect a scam if:
- Someone asks for money as a condition of receiving cash. Letters contain many misspellings and grammatical errors.
- They are asked to wire money to a bank. There should be no need to wire cash when dealing with legitimate banks, even those overseas, because a consumer's own bank should be able to send funds to legitimate institutions.
- Police also warn that telephone numbers that appear to have U.S. area codes can be connected to overseas accounts.