Fighting con artists

VANCOUVER, B.C. – It’s a $70 million-a-year business, and the operators have few scruples.

Their customers are mainly Americans, usually elderly people who hand over thousands of dollars – even their life’s savings – to telemarketers who befriend and cajole them over the phone.

The con artists often are Nigerians who hold Canadian citizenship. They use the U.S-Canadian border as a shield to avoid prosecution.

Michael V. Martina / The Herald

Edie George, 80, of Granite Falls has received hundreds of letters from scam artists claiming she has won millions of dollars.

Working from Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto, they tell their victims they’ve won millions in a foreign lottery, usually the Canadian lottery.

About 5,000 U.S. citizens reported falling victim to the scheme in 2004, according to PhoneBusters, a Canadian-based scam reporting center. It’s not known how many other victims simply don’t report being taken.

The problem is so big that federal governments on both sides of the border have joined forces to put the boiler rooms out of business, prosecute offenders and recover money for victims.

“We know where they’re operating out of, and we’re not too happy about it,” said Gord McRae, superintendent of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Commercial Crimes Section in British Columbia.

His division includes Project Emptor – as in “caveat emptor,” or “buyer beware” in Latin.

Project Emptor is one of three international task forces to combine the resources of the RCMP, the FBI, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission and British Columbia consumer officials. Customs and postal authorities on both sides of the border are also involved.

“I want to make their lives as miserable as possible,” McRae said of the con artists.

The task force hopes to drives the bad guys out of business by bringing them to trial in the Unites States, where they could wind up “getting some real prison time,” said assistant U.S. District Attorney Ellyn Lindsay of Los Angeles.

“Short of that, if one boiler room ceases to be in business because of real consequences, that’s pretty good,” Lindsay said.

Lindsay relies on getting the Canadian criminals to the United States, where she has prosecuted 18 of them in the past four years.

On the Canadian side, Bruce Coleman of the RCMP concentrates on intercepting packages and mail from the United States that contain checks or money orders from unwitting victims.

He has intercepted about 900 mailings in the last year, but that’s just a fraction of the money being sent over the border.

“We have no idea how much we’re missing, but we probably are getting a half of 1 percent. It’s really brutal,” Coleman said.

Granite Falls victim

Edie George, 80, of Granite Falls recently got a notice saying she had won a $4 million sweepstakes.

“I was so excited I spilled my coffee on it,” she said.

She was directed to send in $20 for “processing” her winnings, and was told not to tell anyone about her winnings until the money had been put into her account

She sent the money.

Instead of a big prize, she was deluged with more mail. She was winning lotteries all over the planet.

“Then I started getting more and more,” she said. “The more I waited, the more I got.”

Be on your guard if a caller tells you:

* You must act now or the offer won’t be good.

* You’ve won a free gift, vacation or prize, but you have to pay for postage and handling.

* You must send money, give a credit card or bank account number, or have a check picked up by a courier.

* You don’t need to check out the company with anyone, and you don’t need to speak to anyone – including members of your own family.

* You can’t afford to miss this “high-profit, no-risk” offer.

Some tips to avoid fraud

* Don’t buy from an unfamiliar company.

* Always ask for and wait until you receive written material about any offer or charity.

* Get the salesperson’s name, business identity, telephone number, street address, mailing address and business license number before you transact business.

* Pay only after services are delivered.

* Don’t pay for a “free prize.” If a caller tells you the payment is for taxes, he or she is breaking the law.

* Never send money or give out personal information such as credit card numbers, Social Security number or date of birth to unknown people.

Where to call

If you or a family member is a victim of telemarketing fraud, report it to the Federal Trade Commission, 877-382-4357, or to www.ftc.gov. If it’s a Canadian call, you also can call PhoneBusters, a central reporting location, in Canada, 888-495-8501 or www.phonebusters.com.

Source: FBI and FTC

Initial contact comes via mail, telephone or e-mail, investigators said.

The trick is to make the contacts sound legitimate until they build up a bingo parlor’s worth of security codes, identification numbers and file numbers, ticket numbers, serial numbers and “lucky star” numbers.

All the numbers need to be reported back to an agent, who controls the “winnings.” Phone and fax numbers direct the victim to a “closer,” investigators said, whose job is to milk the victim.

And they do a very good job of it, too, the RCMP’s Coleman said.

Once a victim falls for the trap, they are put on a “sucker list,” Coleman said. The list is sold to others looking for easy marks.

Sgt. Gerard West, who runs the RCMP’s Vancouver operation, estimates 100 operators, large and small, work the scam out of Vancouver and its suburbs.

“It’s not always the same bad guy,” West said. “They sell to other telemarketers, who will take another kick at the cat. The key is to get some personal information about people.”

The business is so lucrative that the bad guys can afford mass mailings to prospect for new victims.

“They always play on hope,” West said.

With that in mind, telemarketers sometimes even send a check to the victim as the first installment on their winnings, West said.

Cash it right away, the victim is told, then quickly send back several thousand dollars to free the rest of the prize.

Banks cash the check, but it bounces. Meanwhile, the victim sends more money to the closer.

Ultimately, the check the victim takes to the bank for deposit looks legitimate but is phony, and the victim winds up not only sending money to a private commercial mail center in Canada but also having to make good on the bad check.

It’s against U.S. law to play offshore lotteries from this side of the border. And McRae emphasized that “there is no lottery in Canada that requires money upfront to claim your winnings.”

Clues on catching the crooks come from victims who report the thefts to central locations in the United States and Canada. Names, addresses, things that are said on the phone, are all small pieces of the puzzle that eventually forms a picture, West said.

The task force focuses on criminal apprehension and prosecution of scam artists. If it has enough evidence, the bad guys’ assets are frozen in hopes of returning some of the stolen money to victims.

Today’s boiler room

Catching the crooks isn’t easy. Modern technology works against the good guys.

A few years ago, the picture of a boiler room included a basement with a large phone bank and lots of people making calls. Today, a crook can buy a cell phone, pager and a phone calling card for $100, and operate out of the back seat of a car, McRae said.

There are all kinds of variations on a theme, said Nora Collas, an FBI agent from Los Angeles who spends much of her time in British Columbia working with the task force.

There are loan scams for people who have had difficulty getting credit, where an upfront fee is required. There’s even a scam recovery scam where telemarketers target previous victims on the pretext of recovering some of the losses.

“We investigate these crimes because of the victims,” Collas said. “They lose money, they lose self-esteem, they lose confidence.”

She works from information supplied by victims and said that’s why it’s important to report being scammed. Collas gathers information for possible use in court, sometimes forcing telemarketers to cross the border willingly for prosecution without extradition.

The international border makes investigation and prosecution more difficult, McRae said. Canadian sentencing laws are easier on the crooks.

That’s why Collas works with Assistant U.S. Attorney Lindsay in Los Angeles. Through extradition and other means, Lindsay prosecutes defendants in her jurisdiction. She’s able to do so partly because there’s almost always a victim from the Los Angeles area.

Both Collas and Lindsay praised the level of cooperation and effort given by the RCMP and other Canadian officials.

But Lindsay also faces obstacles.

In nearly four years, she has charged 46 people connected with the telemarketing business in Canada. Twenty-six of them are still in Canada and have not been prosecuted. Eighteen have pleaded guilty or been convicted at trial, Lindsay said.

A handful are extradited, but she focuses mainly on catching the crooks when they cross the border for some other reason, or negotiating with them to give up.

The Canadian penalties “just don’t have any deterrent effect,” she said.

Lindsay and Collas recently teamed up to secure a 10-year prison term in Los Angeles for one telemarketer.

The real penalty

The real penalty often comes from seizing the crooks’ assets. The Federal Trade Commission in Seattle and the Business Practice and Consumer Protection Authority in British Columbia are part of the international team, and their job is to go after the money.

Laureen France, senior FTC investigator in Seattle, gathers witness statements on this side of the border and sends them to Vancouver. The information sometimes leads to search warrants and to court orders in British Columbia freezing bank accounts and property.

“Often it’s the cooperative relationship that puts pressure on the defendants to settle,” France said. “We could not do this work without this partnership.

“The taxpayers in Canada don’t get any benefit particularly out of (the investigations), yet we get a tremendous amount of assistance from our Canadian partners.

“It’s no panacea, but it’s certainly better than it was six years ago” when the task force was started, France added.

Indeed, measuring success is difficult, and crooks always are getting better.

The team would like to take credit for scam artists recently shifting to victims in Great Britain, but “sitting on a reservoir of humility is useful,” France said. “Things would be worse if we weren’t on the beat, but I’d never say we’re winning the battle.”

In November, the FTC announced returning $1.5 million to U.S. victims from seized bank accounts. But those announcements are few and far between.

One team member reaps the most reward and personal satisfaction from getting money back for victims. That’s RCMP task force member Coleman, who works with customs and postal officials in Canada to intercept money meant for scam artists.

He sometimes gets thank-you notes from people whose money he saved. Other victims have difficulty remembering whether they sent anything or not, and “once you get on that vicious cycle, the bad guys play it,” Coleman said.

There are times he has to convince people that they are not going to win big bucks. Even after his warning, a few have continued to send money to Vancouver, partly because they previously invested so heavily in the scam.

The crooks frequently tell victims to disguise checks because the IRS or customs object for some reason. Many of the intercepted checks or money orders are hidden in magazines and marked “wedding pictures” or something else, Coleman said.

The address, frequently a mail drop in Vancouver, arouses suspicion and leads to interception.

At least for a time, many victims want to believe the crooks instead of the cops.

“These people are victimized by very clever and driven people who are greedier than they are,” Coleman said.

Reporter Jim Haley: 425-339-3447 or haley@heraldnet.com.

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