The envelope had come from Canada, and inside, Ronald R. McCarrie found a pleasant surprise: a check for almost $6,000.
This check didn't look like one of those gimmicky come-ons that arrive frequently with the other junk mail. It looked real, watermarks and all.
"You are one of the winners …" the accompanying letter read. "You are entitled to the sum of $150,000."
All he needed to do was cash the check and wire $4,995.07 to a company called Fidelity Investment Co. in Ottawa, Ontario, to cover taxes on his winnings.
McCarrie, an 84-year-old retired engineer who worked for 35 years on the Santa Fe Railroad out west, showed the letter to his wife, Jeane.
"She told me she had the money spent," McCarrie said. "We both were excited."
But suspicion got the best of him. As well it should.
"What threw me at first is, it's coming from Canada. I've never played no lottery in Canada," McCarrie said. "Then the more I read it, I got mad, or disgusted, or I don't know what. I knew there was something haywire."
And another thing that didn't add up: The business name on the check was "Antique Market Place," an antique mall with an address in Greensboro, N.C.
So McCarrie, figuring he might need legal advice, called the law firm of Morgan & Morgan. The firm referred McCarrie to the Florida Bar Association, which in turn directed him to his local newspaper.
As it turns out, McCarrie was one of thousands of people across the country who were targeted by a scam that ups the ante on the typical incarnation of international lottery fraud, sometimes called "Nigerian scams," by including a seemingly real check with its fictitious claims.
The Nigerian scam has become synonymous with too-good-to-be-true offers of riches from foreign parties who in reality are attempting to gain personal information, like bank account numbers, from unsuspecting victims. The scammers often pose as wealthy Nigerians who need help transferring money to the United States.
So far this year, the Florida Attorney General has received 827 reports of Floridians being hit by similar foreign lottery scams. But because many such cases originate outside the country, state authorities can do little but refer the claims to the U.S. Secret Service, for forged bank notes, or the Federal Trade Commission, which handles wire fraud cases.
Calls to a representative of Fidelity Investment Co. went unanswered. But a call to the business on the checks Fidelity Investment has been sending out was picked up — by the manager of an antique mall in North Carolina. Her business had itself been a victim of the same swindlers targeting McCarrie.
Vivian Way, the manager, said some of her company's checks had fallen into the wrong hands, were duplicated and sent out about two months ago to mostly elderly people across the country from an address in Canada.
Way has since contacted the authorities, but has yet to hear back about the status of the investigation. What she gleaned from the fallout after dozens of scam victims tried to cash thousands of dollars in forged checks is that the Canadian scammers have been layering deceit every step of the way.
"We called them (the scammers) and acted like we received a letter," Way said. "When we asked about our checks, what they're telling people, they said whenever you use one of your credit cards at Sears, or Walmart, or other retailers, it automatically enters them into a sweepstakes.
"And our mall was one of them. And we were just the ones cutting the checks this time."
While the antique mall in Greensboro was able to close its checking account before the deluge of forged checks began pouring in from Nevada at first, then to parts farther east, Way said her company is still receiving calls from people holding checks for thousands of dollars in her company's name.
"It's a good thing we keep a close eye on our checking account," Way said.
Dominick Tao can be reached at (727) 580-2951 or firstname.lastname@example.org.