The tragic case of Edna Schmeets is not hard to understand, and is alarmingly common.
The Harvey, North Dakota, woman turned over some $400,000 to telephone con artists who convinced her that the money would allow her to claim a $19 million Jamaican lottery prize. Of course, there was no prize, no lottery and Edna's money went straight to a bunch of crooks. Think you are too smart to get roped into a scam like that? Then the fraudsters already have a leg up on you. In fact, you may have already supplied them the tools they need to begin ripping you off.
The fraudsters who ripped off Edna got her name from a list they had purchased from a Jamaican man, Sanjay Williams, who also had ties to Charlotte, North Carolina. Williams had started out on the front lines of the ubiquitous Jamaican lottery scams, as a telemarketer calling unsuspecting victims. But he found his skills more suited to gathering the victims' names and numbers to begin with.
Not that gathering the information required a whole lot of skill.
According to a 2013 criminal complaint, Williams operated a web site called "gamblersleads.com," selling lists of potential victims — complete with contact information — to telemarketers, raking in hundreds of thousands of dollars. Compiling lead lists for telemarketers is not a crime in itself, of course. But Williams was creating what fraudsters call "sucker lists." And it was as easy as shooting fish in a barrel.
Williams' weapon of choice was direct mail — a common tactic, according to U.S. Postal Inspector Scott Horne.
"The scammers may draft a letter and say if you want to enter into a lottery, then the only thing you need to do is send a payment of $19.99," he tells "American Greed."
Most people consider it junk mail and throw it away. But the ones who comply are perfect candidates for a sucker list. By sending back the post card, the victim has supplied the crooks not only with their identity, but also their contact information and in many cases their bank details. Plus, they have identified themselves as someone who is eager to win the lottery — and believes they really might have a shot.
"It's not a coincidence that it's seniors who are so often targeted," says Steve Weisman, a senior lecturer of law, taxation and financial planning at Bentley University in Boston, and author of the new book "Identity Theft Alert: 10 Rules You Must Follow to Protect Yourself from America's #1 Crime."
"Scam artists are the only criminals we call artists, and they prey on fear and greed," Weisman says.