Instead of sending foreign lottery letters and checks directly to you from Canada, Jamaica, Costa Rica or Mexico, more and more, scammers are sending big batches of letters in a box, to middlemen in the United States.
Each letter is stuffed in a pre-addressed envelope and many envelopes are stamped with American postage. The return addresses are typically just a private mailing center in an American city. The person who picks up the box may hand it off to yet another criminal who'll mail the letters. By sending the box to a middle man, scammers try to get around federal laws that prohibit using the mail for foreign lotteries.
The lottery letters, of course, are fake. And the enclosed checks, which scam targets are told will cover the required insurance and processing frees, are counterfeit. The objective is to convince you (or your parents or grandparents) that everything is legit, so you'll deposit the check and wire back the fees as instructed, in order to collect your winnings. The scammers split the cash after you wire the phony fees. Then the check bounces and your bank comes after you for their money.
According to the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, lottery scams are now a billion dollar industry. Victims who fall for the scam have lost thousands dollars.
"I've seen victims that have lost hundreds of thousands of dollars," said Postal Inspector Jeremy Leder in Seattle. "And they think so surely that they're going to win this grand prize, that the fraudsters keep saying, 'Well, just a little more money. A little more money and the prize is yours.'"
With the help of postal agents in Canada, the USPIS is able to intercept and destroy from 60,000 to 100,000 fraudulent lottery letters a year. But with limited staff and resources, agents are not able to stop the flow altogether and Leder says there are no signs the scammers have plans to let up.
Leder, who recently arrested a lottery scam suspect in Seattle, says people need to understand these scams are actually international, organized crime rings.
"They have individual job structures. You have people that are at the other end of the phone calls that are the real scam artists. They're the ones that are going to convince you that you've legitimately won. You've got accountants involved here. You've got the runners, the lower level guys grabbing the funds and transferring money. It's a pretty well-established organization and the bulk of the brains of these operations are overseas." Leder explained.
Sadly, the majority of victims are older Americans who are won over by the smooth talking cons. And if you fall for the scam, your chances of getting your money back are less than your chances of winning a real lottery. Remember, foreign lotteries by mail are illegal. So any foreign letter you get claiming you've women money is a lie.
Also remember that lottery scams are just one way scammers try to get you to deposit fake checks. If you get a check in the mail from anyone asking you to send back all or part of the money- notify the U.S. Postal Inspection Service. But never, ever put that check in the bank.