Tuesday morning, ICE agents handed the octogenarians 10 money orders totaling $6,995. Four months ago, the couple sent the money orders to Canada after being contacted by an individual claiming to be an attorney for a distant family member purportedly arrested in that country on drunken-driving charges. In a series of phone calls, the couple also spoke with a woman they believed was a relative who said the funds were to pay her bail and related legal costs. She further claimed the attorney was holding her hostage until he received payment. The woman's voice and pleas were sufficiently convincing that the couple forwarded the money orders as instructed. It was only later after speaking with the actual family member, who resides in Utah and advised she had never visited Canada, that they realized they had been scammed.
The money returned to the couple was recovered as part of Project COLT (Center of Operations Linked to Telemarketing), a bi-national effort involving numerous agencies, including: ICE, the FBI, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and the Quebec Provincial Police.
Alert personnel from the Canadian Postal Service and CBP, who routinely inspect suspicious parcels believed to contain fraudulent telemarketing funds, intercepted the money orders and coordinated with ICE to arrange their return. The case is under ongoing investigation by Canadian authorities.
ICE agents say that while the ploy used on the local couple is somewhat unusual because it was highly personal, it is quite common for Canada-based telephone fraudsters to target senior citizens. One of the most frequent scams involves telemarketers posing as "customs agents" who tell victims they have won the Canadian lottery but must send a "processing fee" or "customs duty" before they can collect their winnings.
"This couple was very fortunate that investigators were able to recover all of their money," said Wayne Wills, special agent in charge for the ICE office of investigations in Hawaii. "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."
According to ICE, the fraudulent telemarketers pose as lawyers, government officials, police officers, accountants, or lottery company officials. Investigators emphasize that the con artists are very believable and will persist until they bilk as much money as possible from their victims.
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.
Since its inception, Project COLT has resulted in the seizure and return of more than $25 million to telemarketing fraud victims in the United States and Canada. Telemarketing fraud has become one of the most pervasive forms of white-collar crime in Canada and the United States, with annual losses in both countries in the billions of dollars. These criminal organizations are heavily involved with international and violent organized crime, including the Hell's Angels motorcycle gang, and as such they represent a significant assault on the United States homeland and upon the financial security and livelihood of its citizens.
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 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.