A few months ago, my 91-year-old Dad called me up and said he received a letter announcing he had won a Jamaican lottery for $250,000, which was strange since he didn’t remember ever purchasing a lottery ticket. The letter asked him to send money over Western Union, to cover the cost of the taxes. I told him not to do anything and to save the letter for me.
I looked over the letter, talked to my sister, who is an attorney, and we both realized that this was a very bad scam. I filed a complaint with the Post Office Inspector General’s office, thinking that this was a strange and random event. Yesterday, I participated in a presentation from the US Postal Inspectors Service, on the topic of mail fraud involving foreign lotteries and realized that my Dad was one of thousands of seniors targeted by overseas con artists.
These scammers obtain mailing addresses and phone numbers of older seniors in the United States, usually over age 75, and who live alone. Using a combination of phone calls, emails and letters, they often befriend the elderly person and get them to fork over huge amounts of cash, from a few hundred dollars to, in at least one case, $94,000 over four years. The scammers are nothing if not persistent and once they have actively engaged a senior, they will call 10 times a day/200 times a week until the money is sent. They will sometimes even threaten to set the senior’s home on fire, using Google earth images to describe the house to the frightened victim.
As part of the “Greatest Generation” of Americans, these are people who were raised to be polite and tend to trust what they see in writing or hear on the phone. Many of these seniors are lonely, and welcome the chance to have daily or weekly contact with anyone. Some of the fraud victims are suffering from early stage Alzheimer’s disease, and they keep sending the money even after they promise their adult children they would stop doing so.
In almost all these cases, it is impossible to get back any of the money sent in, and some elderly fraud victims have lost everything –their bank accounts, cars, even their homes. Adult children should be alert for stacks of sweepstakes offers or prize notification letters, and with their parents' consent, monitor phone bills for unknown domestic or international calls and bank accounts for unusual money transfers. Older relatives need to know they should act very cautiously when dealing with offers that sound too good to be true, hang up if they suspect a scam and never provide their social security number in response to any kind of offer. AARP and the US Postal Service are teaming up to get the word out on this growing problem.
If you or a loved one has been the victim of a scam involving the US mail, you can call toll-free 1-877-876-2455 or go to www.postalinspectors.uspis.gov