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Legal Notes

Foreign lottery “sweepstakes” – no winners in this far too common scam

Last August a Massachusetts federal district court judge sentenced a New York man to more than four years in prison and to repay more than $733,000.00 to his victims, one a Massachusetts man, in a foreign lottery scam. Foreign lottery scams are all too common. Some victims of these scams lose their entire life savings.

The scam begins with a mailing or telephone call informing the victim that they have won a foreign sweepstakes. Scammers then inform their victims that they first need to send a certain sum of money for “fees” and/or “taxes” on these “winnings.” Once a person responds and sends money, the scammers continue to repeatedly request more funds, with each request giving differing types of bogus reasons to release the funds. The scammers may also send a victim a fake, authentic-looking check that they claim is to pay for the fees or taxes. The victim is instructed to deposit this check into their bank account. That “check” will bounce. By the time it is discovered that this check is fraudulent, the funds have already been collected by the scammers from the victim’s account, and the victim has not only lost the amount of the check, but is also responsible for the bounced check fees. Many of these foreign lottery scams originate from Nigeria and other African countries, Canada, some Central American countries, and Jamaica and other Caribbean countries.

These scammers are excellent con artists and can be very charming and very convincing. They may send very official looking documentation complete with legitimate looking stamps and seals. There may also even be a call from someone claiming to be a legitimate governmental authority. Their victims are not necessarily people who suffer from cognitive impairments. Many are competent adults, who are well-educated, well-read, and intelligent. Victims of these scams can be anyone of any age, but senior citizens are usually targeted. Family and friends can become estranged from these victims because they were unable to convince the victims that they were scammed. Victims may also become angry and distrustful of the very people who are trying to help them.

Other scammers also purchase the contact information of victims. To prevent being a victim, never respond to any correspondence or phone call that claims you won a foreign lottery or any contest that you never legitimately entered. If you already had phone contact with a scammer, hang up when called again. It is not rude to hang up on a criminal.

Foreign lotteries are illegal in the U.S., and playing a foreign lottery is a violation of federal law. Furthermore, winners of legitimate contests or legal lotteries are never required to pay any fee or pre-pay taxes on any winnings.

The views expressed in this column represent general information. To address your particular and specific needs consult your own attorney. If you need help with referral to an attorney, contact the Franklin County Bar Association at (413) 773-9839 or the Worcester County Bar Association at (978) 752-1311. Elder law resources may be found through the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys, Massachusetts Chapter, at massnaela.com or 617-566-5640.

Community Legal Aid (CLA) provides legal services free to people age 60 and older for civil legal matters with an emphasis on access to health care coverage (MassHealth and Medicare) and public benefits as well as tenants’ rights. A request for legal assistance can be made by phone at 413-774-3747 or toll-free 1-855-252-5342 during their intake hours (Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday from 9:30 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. and Wednesday from 1:30 p.m. to 4:15 p.m.) or any time online by visiting www.communitylegal.org.