Scammers have Marvin Goldfarb's number, and address, and probably know the color of his house.
Two years ago, Goldfarb provided The Bottom Line a stack of scam mail, delivered to his Newington home by the United States Postal Service. Goldfarb, 78, a retired truck driver, has likely landed on a "sucker list" handed from one fraudster to another. He's still getting mail and phone calls from scammers hoping to find yet another elderly victim.
Goldfarb won't fall for it. He recognized as fake, immediately, a notice he received in late November listing him as one of nine winners in a Mega Million Sweepstakes Raffle Machine contest. He could collect his winnings, $50,000, but was responsible for a $2,400 "tax services" fee.
The thoughtful sweepstakes sent along a check for $3,900 to help "offset" those fees. The check, of course, was a fake. This is how the scammers get the money: The victim cashes the fake check, then sends a real check to the scammers. When the fake check bounces, the victim must cover any of the funds that were spent. Now the victim is a two-time loser.
Marvin the Magnet, of course, did nothing. But then someone left a phone message, telling him he was a sweepstakes winner. Next time, Goldfarb picked up the phone.
"I said to the person, 'I thought all contest winners aren't supposed to give out money to win," he says. "They started to talk gobbledygook. I got disgusted and put the phone down."
The lottery ruse might now be the most pervasive scam targeting senior citizens, eclipsing the Nigerian phishing scam built around luring victims to help a West African prince hide some of his millions. An elderly Newington resident lost $300,000 last year. Another elderly Newington resident lost thousands of dollars.
This lottery scam, which originates in Jamaica, has escalated rapidly in recent years. The Federal Trade Commission says it received more than 29,000 complaints in 2012 after fewer than 2,000 in 2007.
A task force combining Jamaican and United States law enforcement agencies called JOLT, for Jamaican Operations Linked to Telemarketing, has made it more difficult for scam operatives but it's a crime that's difficult to track and even more difficult to prosecute. The lottery scam has been around for years, but the Jamaican adaptation includes repeated phone calls and threats of violence.
"We have heard about criminals who use Google Earth to find targets' addresses, then describe the property and how they will set fire to it if the person doesn't pay," says Howard Schwartz of the Connecticut Better Business Bureau.
Once the victims stop paying, the threats often escalate. Some seniors have been told they will be shot or their grandchildren will be raped if they don't wire payments. The criminals usually use disposable phones or Voice Over Internet Protocol, or VoIP, to make it appear the calls originate in the United States.
Some tips from the FTC and BBB:
>> The scammers often use the name of legitimate companies, such as a financial services organization or Publishers Clearing House.
>> If you play an actual foreign lottery, either by mail or over the phone, you're violating federal law.
>> If you purchase a foreign lottery ticket, your name might be added to a "sucker list" that is bought and sold by scam artists.
>> Note the Jamaican area code: 876. If you see it on Caller ID, do not answer the phone.
>> Do not provide personal or financial information to anyone over the phone.
>> If a contest, or lottery, asks for fees before you receive the winning, it's a fraud.
>> Never cash a check received, unsolicited, in the mail.