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The Daily



10-09-03: Lottery scam artists target Mercer County


The correspondence arrives on stationary complete with letterhead, graphics and a notary seal announcing that you have won thousands of dollars in a lottery.
You never purchased a ticket, but somehow a computer drew your name and those of 18,999 others at random. Claiming the unexpected windfall is easy — pay the excise tax and come to Spain. Or better yet, provide Social Security and bank account numbers for direct deposit.
The Mercer County Sheriff’s Department warns this is one of the latest scams targeting area residents as well as other unsuspecting people throughout the country. The office has received eight complaints in the past three weeks.
“These are only the ones we know about,” said Detective Kip Wright. “The number probably represents the tip of the iceberg.”
The letter claims the El Mundo de la Primitiva Lottery took place July 16, but the names of the winners were not released until Aug. 13 due to some sort of mix. The letter, which bore a Feb. 9 date, encouraged the recipient to keep news of the award quiet until the claim had been processed and the funds remitted.
An area resident received the congratulatory letter and immediately thought what a wonderful Christmas present the money would make for his family.
The unidentified man sent $1,050 cash via Western Union as directed and filled out forms bearing the name of Estrella Security & Finance S.A. In addition to his name and address, he supplied the Madrid company with his bank account and routing numbers. Luckily, a relative who works at the bank learned of the matter and the account numbers were changed before any transactions took place.
“There was a time when these fictitious firms requested checks,” Wright said. “However, people sometimes got cold feet during the ensuing four or five days and stopped payment. Now most transactions are done via Western Union with the transfer of money being completed in a matter of seconds.”
Employees of a local business recently contacted the sheriff’s office regarding an elderly resident sending frequent money orders to Israel. Ironically, the woman came in as detectives were at the location.
It seems she had been contacted on numerous occasions by “a real nice man.” Their telephone conversations led to a rapport that allowed him the opportunity to ask for even more money. His mother was to undergo life-saving surgery at Tel Aviv-Haifa Hospital and the family had to pay money up front.
The detectives explained the story was a hoax designed to take her hard-earned money, and the male caller was a con artist and not a friend. The explanation seemed to sink in at least for the moment. Several hours later they were notified the woman had gone to another location in order to send money electronically.
Wright fears other area residents have been duped into sending money in response to everything from helping political prisoners spirit money out of foreign countries to magazine promotions promising $25,000 cash awards.
He admits the letters sent out in mass mailings do look official and that may convince many of their legitimacy.
“People familiar with computers and graphics can turn out some mighty professional stationary,” he said. “Technology is a wonderful thing but not in the hands of the wrong people with the wrong intent.”
The correspondence often includes telephone numbers to verify authenticity or to provide additional information. An accomplice on the other end of what is usually a cell phone is only to glad to verify the caller is indeed a winner and to reiterate what must be done to claim the money or prize.
“It’s virtually impossible to track these people down,” Wright said. “They move about leaving behind empty warehouses and apartments. It’s easy to purchase a cell phone or mobile phone plan and then discard the phones later.”
Correspondence goes out indiscriminately to names obtained from mailing lists many companies sell or to members of national organizations, including those geared toward senior citizens. They even show up addressed to Jeff Grey, the county sheriff, and Lori Knapke, crime prevention officer. There seems to be an increase in the number of e-mails that don’t require 37 cents postage.
“The correspondence goes out 10,000 at a time,” Wright said. “If five respond, then they have five on the hook and the possibility of winding up with two or three takers.”
People, who receive questionable letters or e-mails and feel the need to claim a prize or respond to a heart-rending plight, should first contact someone they trust like a bank employee or an attorney. Social Security and bank account numbers should never be given out.
Wright and Knapke have an additional warning for area residents — if the offer seems too good to be true, it probably is.


Phone: (419)586-2371,   Fax: (419)586-6271
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