July 27th, 2007 06:35 EST
ICE returns $66,000 to octogenarian targeted in Canadian lottery scam
LOS ANGELES - Special agents with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) today returned $66,000 to an 85-year-old Los Angeles woman victimized by telemarketing con artists in Canada who promised her a $1.8 million lottery windfall.
The money returned to the retired school administrator was recovered by investigators as part of Project COLT (Center of Operations Linked to Telemarketing), a bi-national effort involving numerous agencies, including ICE, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and the Quebec Provincial Police.
ICE agents say the ploy used on the Los Angeles senior citizen is a common one employed by telemarketing fraudsters. She was advised that to obtain her lottery prize she would have to forward money to pay the taxes on her winnings. After sending multiple payments totaling more than $200,000, the victim told relatives about her expected windfall and they alerted the local FBI. A Victim Assistance representative for the FBI passed the lead on to Project COLT investigators, who were eventually able to recover most of the woman's money.
One of the victim's payments was in the form of a $100,000 cashier's check. Officers with the Canada Border Services Agency intercepted that payment and Project COLT investigators subsequently arranged for the issuing U.S. bank to cancel the check. The money returned today was what remained of a $100,000 wire transfer the victim made at the direction of the scammers to a Canadian bank account. Project COLT investigators notified security officials at the Canadian bank who froze the account.
"This woman was very fortunate that investigators were able to get most of her money back," said Robert Schoch, special agent in charge for the ICE office of investigations in Los Angeles. "Unfortunately, that's often not the case. While ICE and its enforcement partners are doing everything possible to stop this kind of fraud, the first line of defense is for people to be suspicious of anyone who calls and asks them to send money."
Last year alone, Project COLT investigators say they identified more than 450 individuals who fell victim to the Canadian lottery scam and similar telemarketing schemes. Those victims, many of them elderly, lost in excess of $50 million. In the last decade, Project COLT records show the total losses from these schemes have exceeded $200 million. So far, less than 10 percent of those funds have been recovered.
According to ICE, the fraudulent telemarketers pose as lawyers, government officials, police officers, accountants, or lottery company officials. The victims are typically told they will receive a sum of money varying from thousands to millions of dollars in lottery winnings. Investigators emphasize the con artists are very believable and will persist until they bilk as much money as possible from their victims.
"These scam artists would call my aunt virtually every day and ask how she was doing. They acted like they were her best friends," said Mike, who asked that his full name not be used to protect his aunt's privacy. "These people exploited her trust and played upon her desire to help her family out financially. I just want to do what I can to spare other families from having to go through this ordeal."
Initiated in 1998, the goal of Project COLT is to identify, disrupt, and dismantle telemarketing fraud operations. As part of the initiative, law enforcement officers strive to intercept funds - often cash and cashier's checks - so they can ultimately be returned to victims. Project COLT investigators also work to prevent further victimization, both through public education and the prosecution of those who commit the fraud.
Project COLT members also have formed partnerships with Canada Border Services Agency, Canada Post Corporation, Federal Express, Purolator, United Parcel Service, DHL and other companies to assist with fund interception and return.
Before sending any money to telemarketers, ICE urges the public to contact PHONEBUSTERS,
Canada's Anti-fraud Call Center at 1-888-495-8501. The staff at PHONEBUSTERS works closely with Project COLT investigators and other law enforcement agencies. More information on the initiative is also available through the PHONEBUSTERS website at www.phonebusters.com.