Foreign lottery fraud is one of the most pernicious scams targeting older Coloradans today. The scams come from dozens of countries, but many of them originate in Jamaica and are aimed at older, home-bound victims.
C. Steven Baker, Midwest Region director for the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, says that lottery and sweepstakes scammers from Jamaica and elsewhere may be stealing more than $1 billion a year from Americans. The problem has become so pronounced that, in early 2013, the Senate Special Committee on Aging agreed to investigate Jamaica-based phone scams, including lottery scams. But the FTC estimates that more than 90 percent of lottery scams go unreported because the victims are too embarrassed or ashamed to file a complaint.
At ElderWatch, a program with the Colorado Attorney General and the AARP Foundation, our mission is to ensure that no older adult is left to suffer, alone and in silence, at the hands of those who exploit them. We have received more than 350 complaints from Colorado residents over the past five years in the category of Prizes, Sweepstakes and Lotteries, and it was the number one category of complaint in 2013. The majority of folks did not respond to the scams. However, 21 percent of older Coloradans approached by the scams fell victim with reported losses as little as $20 and as much as $250,000, for an average of $11,565 per incident. The estimated total amount lost to the victims during the five-year period is $786,406, and the average age of the victim was 75.
According to the detailed complaints we receive at ElderWatch, here’s how the typical foreign lottery scam works: An initial solicitation invites the victim to send in a few bucks to enter another country’s lottery. Despite it being illegal to play foreign lotteries in the United States, many people respond to that initial offer, and once a victim “plays”, they will be inundated with more offers via the mail or over the phone. Sometimes small “winnings” checks are mailed out to convey a sense that the lottery is real and to lure the victim into continuing to play. Eventually the victim is approached with the promise of a large cash prize, with the caveat that an upfront fee is needed to claim their winnings. The victim wires money overseas and that money goes directly into the pockets of the criminal.
Once the scammers have identified a victim and begin a relationship with them, they employ a number of high-pressure tactics to take advantage of the victim, including promising the victim a life of luxury, informing the victim that the winnings must be claimed immediately or will be lost, harassing the victim with “urgent” phone calls and telling the victim not to tell anyone else about the winnings lest someone else claim their prize.
Legitimate sweepstakes don’t require a winner to pay “insurance,” “taxes” or “shipping and handling charges” to collect the prize. The bottom line is this: Never wire or send money to anyone, anywhere who says you've won a prize. Odds are, it's a scam.
Sometimes it can be difficult for law enforcement to combat this issue. But the U.S. Postal Inspection Service recently developed a website to help educate consumers: www.deliveringtrust.com. They encourage people who receive lottery or sweepstakes mailers to give the mailings to the local postmaster. In addition, AARP Foundation ElderWatch’s hotline is staffed by volunteers from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. MT, Monday–Friday, and serves as an information and referral resource for those who have been approached by, or fallen victim to, a scam. Consumers can call 800-222-4444 and select option two to connect with an ElderWatch specialist. To learn more about AARP Foundation ElderWatch, please visit www.aarpelderwatch.org. ElderWatch is always seeking passionate volunteers to help protect older Coloradans. If you are interested in volunteering, please visit http://states.aarp.org/aarp-foundation-volunteer-opportunities/.
Written By: Beau Ballinger, Sr. Program Specialist, AARP Elderwatch