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Sweepstakes claw in through mailbox, rob elderly St. Petersburg man

Sweepstakes mail stacked up at the home of a 93-year-old St. Petersburg man. These piles built up in a surprisingly short time.

SCOTT KEELER | Times

Sweepstakes mail stacked up at the home of a 93-year-old St. Petersburg man. These piles built up in a surprisingly short time.

The photograph to the right is the mail received during December by a 93-year-old man who lives alone in St. Petersburg.

No, wait. It's not all of his mail for the month — just the sweepstakes entries.

He started entering sweepstakes only a few months ago. But things quickly got out of control. Get on one mailing list and you get on lots more.

His checkbook ledger for the past few months is filled with page after page of "processing fees" for $10, $20 and so forth.

Then the really bad guys found him. They probably got his name from the "sucker lists" that are traded back and forth in the business.

By November, someone even got his home phone changed to an unlisted number that only they knew. He does not remember changing the number. Maybe he did it, but his lawyer thinks somebody got his information and did it for him.

The phone rang and rang.

By late November, the constant callers convinced him that to win the big money he needed to send larger sums, sometimes even cash stuffed into hand-addressed envelopes.

And he did. His ledger shows checks for $2,000, $4,000, even $9,200. These big checks totaled $18,000 in all. This does not count the hundreds or even thousands he had already spent on "processing fees."

On Nov. 24 he left a message with his lawyer that said: "I think in my old age, I've done something stupid."

His lawyer called back and got a recorded message saying the number had been disconnected. He went in person. The phone was ringing when he got there.

The other day, the three of us sat around the dining room table in the perfectly kept condo. He is a retired weather forecaster. His wife died in 1997. He is gracious and gentle, balding and bespectacled. He was alert. He laughed at jokes and made some, too.

Only when the topic turned to sweepstakes and these calls did he lose his smile, fold his hands in his lap and look downward.

"I am very embarrassed," he said quietly.

• • •

Listen to me:

You are not a finalist in a mail-in sweepstakes, even if you have an official-looking letter.

You are not in the final, special, select group. You have not already won big money, subject only to the verification of your "winning number."

If somebody wants you to pay them a "processing fee," he is just taking your money.

For that matter, if you get a phone call from the "IRS" or the "bank" or an alleged sweepstakes wanting you to tell them your account or Social Security numbers, don't do it. Think about it — why is your bank calling you to ask for your account number?

Sometimes, victims do not believe these things are scams, even when their families or the authorities intervene.

Other times, victims realize they have been taken, but they desperately try to keep it a secret — especially from their families.

They are ashamed and angry at themselves, but also afraid. They are afraid someone will try to say they can't take care of themselves anymore.

• • •

I'm not using the victim's name so that other scam artists can't find him. His lawyer, Thomas Churchill Dunn, helped him get a new unlisted number, stopped payment on two of the big checks, and has been intercepting his mail.

These are not sweepstakes that you would know by name. Most of them don't even have an identifiable name, in fact. The return addresses say things such as "Award Notification Bureau," "International Award Advisors," or my personal favorite, "Stimulus & Citizens Relief Plan."

They bear big capital letters and official-looking seals. "Sealed Notice — Prepared Document," said one. Another bore this impressive but nonsensical stamp: "PRIMARY PROCEDURAL COMMUNICATIONS ENVELOPE."

The return addresses were most often from Las Vegas, but much of the country was represented: Huntington Station, N.Y.; Shawnee Mission, Kan.; Lynbrook, N.Y.; Sunbury, Ohio.

Usually the pitch is that the recipient is in a final group eligible to win a prize. Sometimes it is even more direct: "Congratulations! YOU HAVE WON A SWEEPSTAKES PRIZE, and must sign and mail the form below."

The typical "processing fee": $20.

• • •

Sgt. Kevin Smith oversees the economic crimes unit of the St. Petersburg Police Department. He is quite familiar with lottery scams; the department handles several cases each year, usually started with complaints from the families of victims.

Catching the perpetrators is rare. They move money from here to there and eventually out of the country. Some countries such as Canada cooperate with the United States in tracking scams, but by the time one gets big enough to be noticed, the damage is done.

"We see them out of Spain, out of Canada, out of a lot of countries," Smith says.

In this case, the victim was persuaded to send large sums of cash to a physical address in North Carolina. But Smith says the recipients at the other end usually turn out to be middlemen, people who sign up for some sort of "work at home" scheme and are just bundling the money and forwarding it out of the country.

These are tough cases, especially when the victims don't cooperate. Smith recalls one elderly victim who repeatedly went to the store to wire money out of the country. The alert clerks notified the authorities, and police met with the victim to counsel her.

A month later, she was back at a different store, sending money under a different name. When police again tried to talk her out of it, she angrily denied she was even the same woman they had talked to before. But she was.

• • •

Falling for a lottery scam or some other trickery does not mean you are senile or losing it or that there is something wrong with you. It happens to all sorts of people, smart people, professionals. The Florida Bar News recently reported that several lawyers around the state had fallen victim to an age-old scam involving their trust accounts.

"Anybody can be the victim of some kinds of scam or fraud, anybody," says Rebecca Morgan, director of the Center for Excellence in Elder Law at Stetson University.

Still, scam artists especially like to target the elderly. They're more likely to live alone, more likely to be isolated, more likely to be at home to be contacted.

If you live alone and have no close advisers, you are going to have to look out for yourself. Keep your money. Keep your personal information a close secret.

If you're a family member worried about someone close to you falling for these scams, Morgan and Smith say you can keep an eye out for warning signs:

• Are they suddenly getting an unusual volume of mail?

• Are there new items showing up in the house, trinkets that contests sometimes hand out?

• Are they subscribing to unusual magazines that they ordinarily would not read?

• Are they receiving or making an unusual number of phone calls?

• Are they suddenly late with bill payments, or even having their power or water turned off?

This is a tricky business for family members, of course. Nobody wants to be spied on. Nobody wants to be threatened by the idea that he can't look out for himself. Each family has to negotiate the situation for itself.

But everybody I talked to agreed on one thing: The best way to fight this is to keep it from happening in the first place.

My 93-year-old friend thought you should know.

Sweepstakes claw in through mailbox, rob elderly St. Petersburg man 01/16/10 [Last modified: Saturday, January 16, 2010 8:30pm]

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