Scammers preying on the elderly
Home News Tribune Online 01/20/08
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By RICK MALWITZ
EDISON — Instead of receiving a tip one day last August, a taxi driver had a tip for police.
His taxi company had been picking up 77-year-old resident of Brighton Gardens, a senior citizen assisted living complex on Oak Tree Road. As often as twice a day she would ask to be taken to a Wachovia Bank branch in South Plainfield, and then to a FedEx Kinko's branch in Woodbridge.
When one driver asked the woman what she was doing with the money — as much as $5,000 on some occasions — she said, "I have to go to my bank and send this money so I can receive $800,000 in cash," according information the taxi driver gave to police.
It was later learned that the woman was a victim of at least two lottery scams, believing convincing promises that she had won millions of dollars.
Once authorities were alerted to her activities, her outgoing mail was intercepted by the U.S. Postal Service, and nearly $80,000 in cash was recovered from envelopes.
She told her story to the Home News Tribune, in a call last week to complain about how she has no access to her money. "I haven't had one cent since November," she said.
It was learned that she was denied access to her money, following a decision by Judge Alexander Waugh, sitting in the Chancery Division of Superior Court in Middlesex County. At a hearing to determine if she should have control of her money, the judge appointed attorney Charles Rusan of Florham Park as her temporary guardian of her property.
Last week Rusan learned first-hand the nature of the individuals seeking money from the Edison woman.
He said he received calls from people threatening his life, demanding: "Hey, release her money."
Rusan filed a police report following the threatening calls, and they are being investigated by Florham Park police and Morris County Prosecutor's Office.
In November — when it reported the suicide of 72-year-old Ann Mowle of Monroe, who lost an estimated $248,000 in a lottery scam — the Jamaica Gleaner newspaper noted the danger.
The Gleaner reported: "During a bloody rampage in Montego Bay last year, during which at least five persons were beheaded, the police blamed the violence on the scam and said the heavy weaponry in the city's criminal gangs were procured through funding from the scam."
What makes the cases of the 77-year-old Edison woman and Mowle extraordinary are the amounts of the losses. Losses of lesser amounts are common.
"Every week in New Jersey we run into stories like this," said Edward Steed of the U. S. Postal Inspection Services. "People are losing two and three thousand on the average. Some are losing exorbitant amounts, like this (Edison) woman."
Steed allowed, however, that authorities hear only a fraction of stories from victims. "We're only getting probably 25 to 30 percent of the victims to come forward. The rest are too embarrassed to report the scam," he said.
"I bet it's less than that," said Monroe Detective Robert Bennett, who investigated Mowle's suicide.
The 77-year-old Edison woman told the Home News Tribune she was notified she had won $71 million in a Jamaican lottery. She had suffered a tragic loss in 2006 in a house fire. Her house was totally destroyed, her daughter died in the fire and her son suffered serious burns.
The woman reasoned, "If I could get that ($71 million) I could buy a nice place for the both of us."
In the first scam she was repeatedly asked for money supposedly earmarked for taxes, insurance, and travel expenses for couriers who would bring the money from the airport. She said she suspected it might be a scam, when she saw a similar story on television.
Then, she said, "Two or three weeks later I won another one in Canada, for $70 million."
This time she was skeptical until she began receiving calls from people identifying themselves as being from the IRS and the FBI and other government agencies. When these callers assured her the lottery was legitimate, she said, "I started sending them money."
Once police were alerted by the taxi operator — who asked to remain anonymous — the woman was informed of the scam by police, and resisted their efforts to help. "If I want to take my money out of the bank I'll do as I damn well please," she told Edison Detective Catherine Vojir.
According to the police report, employees at the Wachovia Bank branch in South Plainfield were aware the woman had been making large withdrawals. When bank employees questioned her, according to the police report, she told them: "It's my money. I'll do whatever I want."
At the FedEx Kinko's police learned she had sent numerous packages to addresses in New York, Alabama and Georgia.
Police also learned that the woman received numerous suspicious calls at her home at Brighton Gardens. Though employees there told callers their facility was an assisted living center and asked them to stop calling, the calls continued. When the calls were traced by police it was learned they were from Jamaica.
The police report concluded that the victim, "Still believes the more she sends she will receive a larger amount of money. (The victim) handles all of her personal matters at this time and is in jeopardy of losing all her assets due to not listening to anybody who has tried to advise her that she is involved in a lottery scam."
In October, two months after the taxi operator alerted police, postal workers at the Brainy Boro Station in Metuchen alerted postal officials that the woman was sending suspicious packages. Most of the packages were to an address on Queen Street in Montego Bay, Jamaica.
Postal officials then authorized the interception of her mail, according to Steed.
Also in October, attorney Thomas Wolfe of Metuchen was contacted by people he describes as "interested third parties," who asked Wolfe to represent them at the hearing before Judge Waugh.
After Waugh ruled that the woman should not have control of her money, the intercepted envelopes were opened and nearly $80,000 in cash was recovered.
Wolfe said the $80,000 represents only the amount of money intercepted by authorities. Money not intercepted was, said Wolfe, "substantial."
Sweepstakes and lottery scams often target the elderly. "The older generation is a lot more trusting. In my dad's generation, you shook hands. In my generation, we don't trust anybody," said Dawn Brown of the Middlesex County Office of Consumer Affairs.
To guard against fraud Brown said she tells groups of seniors, "Before you send money to anybody, call Consumer Affairs, call your attorney, your children, your neighbor — anybody you trust."
Because the elderly are less apt to be regular computer users — and thus targets of countless Internet scams — the elderly are commonly targeted through the mail or by telephone.
Typically they learn they are "winners" with impressive-looking mailings or convincing phone calls.
In order to claim a prize the "winners" are asked to pay fee. A most common scam asks for $20 to process delivery of the prize.
If an individual pays the fee they are often asked for additional fees, to pay taxes, and transportation and courier costs.
"Once (the operators of a scam) see someone as a cash cow, they go after them," said Brown.
People are motivated by the lure of quick riches, said Brown. "Everybody wants to win," she said. "If we didn't, New Jersey wouldn't have a lottery."