LONG BEACH, Calif. - Special agents with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) returned $160,000 to an 87-year-old Los Angeles-area man victimized by Quebec-based telemarketing con artists who told him he had won a $3.3 million Canadian lottery prize.
The cashier's and bank checks returned to the retired engineer Wednesday by ICE HSI were recovered by investigators as part of Project COLT (Center of Operations Linked to Telemarketing), a binational effort involving numerous agencies, including ICE, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, the Security and Investigation Services for Canada Post and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
ICE HSI agents say the ploy used on the octogenarian is a common one employed by telemarketing fraudsters. The victim was contacted by two women, one posing as a representative of the Internal Revenue Service and another purporting to be from the U.S. Department of Justice. The women told the man that to obtain the lottery prize he would have to forward them money to pay the taxes on his winnings. He ultimately sent three checks representing most of his life savings.
The scam came to light after the U.S. Postal Inspection Service got a lead from the Montgomery County Sheriff's Department that an elderly Maryland woman was getting phone calls and mail from lottery scammers in Montreal. Canadian postal employees subsequently intercepted more than a dozen cash-filled envelopes sent to the thieves by the Maryland woman and another elderly individual in Minnesota. Ultimately, U.S. and Canadian investigators identified three additional victims, including the Los Angeles-area widower. Agents from the ICE HSI office in Montreal played a prominent role in the investigation.
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 savvy and will persist until they bilk as much money as possible from their victims.
"I'm sure people are dubious that anyone would fall for something as far-fetched as this, but these scam artists are incredibly persistent and convincing," said Irwin, who asked that his full name not be used to protect his father's privacy. "My father is a highly intelligent man, but he really believed that he won this lottery prize. I just want to do what I can to spare other families from having to go through a similar ordeal."
Since its inception in 1998, Project COLT has recovered approximately $27 million from fraudsters and initiated numerous complex criminal investigations, resulting in 94 indictments and 74 convictions. There have been 175 U.S. and Canada-based arrests. In addition, Canadian law enforcement authorities have executed more than 75 search warrants and shut down 50 Western Union and Money Gram offices involved in telemarketing fraud conspiracies. Canada-based organizations that track these types of telemarketing scams report that consumers have lost more than $280 million to fraudsters. Law enforcement officials believe that represents only about 5 percent of consumers' actual total loss.
As part of Project COLT, 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.
In support of the effort, Project COLT members have formed partnerships with the Canada Border Services Agency, Canada Post Corporation, Federal Express, Purolator, United Parcel Service, DHL and other companies to facilitate fund interception and return.
Before sending any money to telemarketers, ICE HSI urges the public to contact PHONEBUSTERS, Canada's Anti-fraud Call Center at 1-888-495-8501. The staff at PHONEBUSTERS work 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.