Canadian Sweepstakes Lottery Victim Duped by Nigerian Counterfeit Check
02/08 - New Jersey - A 74-year-old city man has been bilked of more than $8,400 by a potent and widespread scam involving purported sweepstakes winnings that targets mostly seniors.
In mid-December, Oscar Massey Sr. received a letter telling him he had won a $1 million grand prize in a "Publisher's Gaming" sweepstakes based in Canada.
To collect his winnings, though, Massey was told by a representative from the purported sweepstakes to cash an accompanying $4,835 check and send a corresponding money order to an address in Calgary, Canada, to cover costs and taxes.
The representative, calling himself Milton Kennedy, reassured Massey. "You'll be fine for Christmas," Kennedy told him.
Massey said that while he was initially "a little suspicious," he figured the bank would hold the check until it was certain the funds existed.
His qualms were eased after a teller at a local Wachovia Bank where he has an account immediately cashed the check, he said.
"I was thinking about getting my kids something for Christmas," said Massey, a retired Bristol-Myers Squibb laborer.
Two days later, Massey received another check from the sweepstakes outfit, this time for $4,700. A Wachovia teller quickly cashed that check, too.
Massey then did as instructed by the sweepstakes representative, purchasing two MoneyGrams and sending them to the Calgary address. He also wired money via Western Union to the supposed sweepstakes.
It wasn't until he went to his bank to withdraw money to pay for his January rent that Massey realized he'd been victimized by one of a proliferating number of scams, most based outside the United States that prey on seniors.
"They told me I didn't have any money in there," he said. "That's when I found out the checks were no good."
The bank had used Massey's $600 pension check to cover a portion of the funds eaten up by the bounced checks, he said. Since he receives his pension by direct deposit, Massey has of late supported himself solely through his monthly Social Security check of $1,180.
After paying his rent, medical expenses, insurance and other bills, that leaves him little money to buy food, he said.
"I can't pay my bills," Massey said. "I can't afford it."
But banks say they are often powerless to head off the scams and keep consumers from being bilked.
Despite the electronic, nearly instantaneous communications between and among financial institutions, it can take as long as a few weeks to determine that other banks' accounts either do not have the funds to cover the checks or no longer exist, bank representatives say. And, by law, funds must be made available within a matter of days.
"While federal regulations require institutions to make funds from a deposit available quickly — generally within one to five business days — it can take a couple of weeks or longer before the bank discovers that the deposited check is worthless," the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. says on its Web site.
Still, the banks say that they train their tellers and other personnel to spot potential red flags, which can be difficult since the checks appear legitimate.
The scams' prevalence have become such that authorities and banks are posting warnings on Web sites alerting consumers and working with each other to prevent the scams from spreading further.
In some cases, Postal Service and federal officials have been able to act swiftly enough to keep customers from sending the money.
But the spread of the scams indicates that they work all too well, and easily.
"It's like a boiler-room operation, it's the proverbial desk and a phone. And when you close them down in one location they just reopen in another location," said Dawn Brown, the assistant director of the Middlesex County Office of Consumer Affairs, which has posted a warning about the scam on its home page.
Idealy, "there should be some type of a red flag that goes up," Brown said.
"I really think there should be some type of a way to flag these accounts when these seniors are taking out these horrendous amounts of money," Brown said.
Massey's son, Latiff Qudir, said he expected that banks would be better equiped to safeguard their consumers from the scams.
"That should have never been cashed," he said of the checks coming from Canada. "Now they say "Now, you owe us.' . . . All in all, none of this should have taken place. If they would have held those checks, they would have found out it's a scam."
But a Wachovia representative said that while its tellers are trained to spot potentially phony checks, they can be difficult to identity.
And the bank must also balance those precautions by otherwise giving customers timely access to money that is rightly theirs, the spokesperson, Fran Durst, said.
"Our policy is that we place holds based on the customer's total relationship with us," meaning the bank considers the length of the bank's relationship with the customer, she said. "If this is a very good customer with us, we cash that check right away."
Massey, though, said he has been banking with Wachovia for about five years and that he has never taken out a loan or had any other business dealings with the bank.
Information and consumer alerts on the scams are available on the Internet at: www.fdic.gov/consumers/consumer/news/cnwin0607/scams.html and www.co.middlesex.nj.us/consumeraffairs/index.asp