CHICAGO - Special agents with U. S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) on Monday returned $14,600 to an elderly victim of telemarketing con artists operating from Canada.
The money was returned Feb. 28 to an 89-year-old Chicago woman following a multi-agency investigation under a joint U.S.-Canada initiative called "Project COLT."
Although there are many variations to the scam, in this case the callers told the elderly woman that she had won a $6.5 million lottery prize, but she had to pay fees and service charges to be able to collect the fictitious winnings. This Chicago victim, who wishes to remain anonymous, lost about $70,000 of her savings to the scam artists.
ICE HSI special agents warn that con artists often pose as lawyers, customs officials, police officers or lottery company officials to scam their victims out of millions of dollars.
Project COLT was formed in 1998 to identify, disrupt and dismantle telemarketing fraud operations in the United States and Canada. Project COLT members include the following law enforcement agencies: ICE HSI, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Surete du Quebec (Quebec Provincial Police), Montreal Police, the FBI, and the U.S. Postal Inspection Service (USPIS).
"These scam artists are relentless if their efforts to charm vulnerable elderly victims out of their life savings," warns Gary Hartwig, special agent-in-charge of the ICE HSI office in Chicago. "Together, with our law enforcement partners, we are working to put these criminal enterprises out of business. However, the first line of defense is to be skeptical of anyone promising riches."
Fraudulent telemarketers often instruct their victims to pay for service charges, federal or provincial taxes, customs duties, handling, insurance or other charges. Victims are told to send the funds via mail, courier or wire-transfer companies, such as Western Union or MoneyGram. Scammers are often able to then receive the transferred funds using false identification. Con artists frequently pose as government officials to convince their victims to send money.
Project COLT includes a unit of officers who intercept funds and work to prevent further victimization through public education. They also investigate these cases to bring to justice those who commit the fraud. Project COLT intercepts about $1 million annually. These funds are returned to victims who are instructed how they can avoid future victimization.
Project COLT members have formed partnerships with the Canada Border Services Agency, Canada Post Corporation, Federal Express, Purolator, UPS, DHL and other companies to assist with intercepting and returning funds to the victims.
ICE encourages the public to report suspected telemarketers or fraudulent activity through its toll-free hotline at 1-866-DHS-2ICE. This hotline is staffed around the clock by investigators.