Tuesday, August 20, 2013
District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis warned the public that one couple has already lost $30,000 to new lottery scam that uses the official San Diego County seal and targets veterans and seniors.
SAN DIEGO District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis warned the public Tuesday about a new lottery scam that uses the official seal of San Diego County to appear believable.
This latest version of the common scam targets veterans and seniors using letters that thank veterans for their service and refers to the Navy Federal Credit Union. Dumanis said that one retired San Diego couple has already lost $30,000 to the scheme.
They gave their bank information to the perpetrators of the scam after receiving phone calls telling them they'd won up to $2.5 million and a fax with the official San Diego County seal.
"In short, they're using the legitimacy of a government seal to prey on vulnerable seniors. These individuals have stolen at least one couple's hard-earned money in a brazen and heartbreaking example of financial elder abuse."
The use of the government seal is a felony on its own, Dumanis said, and may indicate the scammers' ability to use other government seals. In other words, this scam may be happening all over the country.
"This is just the tip of the iceberg, and this is going to spread," said Deputy District Attorney Paul Greenwood.
Two other victims have already been identified, one in another part of California and one in New Mexico.
"We'll probably find a lot more victims out there," Greenwood said.
He joined Dumanis and two public investigators at the District Attorney's office Tuesday to address the media.
"This is going on every day in this country and it's a lesson that there's nothing for free," Greenwood said. "When you get a phone call, when you get a letter promising you that you've won, and then asking you to send, as a precondition of getting that money, your own hard-earned money, that is a huge red flag. Legitimate competitions don't work in that way."
The victims in San Diego were a couple aged 83 and 79, who received several telephone calls telling them they had won as much as $2.5 million.
The couple was told to send $20,000 worth of insurance and tax payments before the winnings could be deposited into their bank and were faxed a photocopy of a check made out for $2.5 million and the official county seal as proof of the lottery win.
The letter thanked the husband, who is a veteran, for his service and referred to their account at Navy Federal Credit Union.
Dumanis said this points to the fact they are targeting veterans, and using the San Diego County seal to "give it some authenticity."
The couple eventually provided their credit union account information and a social security number in order to allow the winnings to be transferred into their accounts. Instead, the criminals cleaned out the couple's savings, stealing close to $30,000 in all.
When they realized their money had been stolen, the couple, one of which is a veteran, sought help from Navy lawyers at MCAS Miramar.
The Navy lawyers determined they could not help the couple and called the District Attorney's office.
"The victims were clearly distressed," Greenwood said, adding that Dumanis has provided the "resources necessary to aggressively go after the suspects."
Dumanis said they will try to recover the couple's money, which they've succeeded at doing in past cases when they've been able to prosecute and bring someone to court.
"But these are very difficult because a lot of times, it involves people from other areas, and sometimes other countries, which is why sometimes we involve the FBI," Dumanis said. "But with technology being what it is now, we can track things a little better."
Greenwood, who heads up the District Attorney's Elder Abuse Prosecution Unit, gave tips for the public on how to avoid being caught in scams like this: hang up on anyone calling with promises you've won money, especially if they've asked you not to tell anyone about the winnings, and throw away any similar letters you get in the mail.
"This message isn't just for seniors in our county," Greenwood said. "This message is for family members; this message is for all of us to be on the lookout. Please don't allow yourself to be hoodwinked by these scam artists."
Greenwood also urged banks and credit unions to be proactive in training their staff members about these scams. He suggested, for example, that bank tellers ask questions when elderly people withdraw thousands of dollars in cash.
Dumanis said that the investigation is open and could be helped if additional victims come forward.
"It may be embarrassing for people to come forward once they realize they've been duped, but please don't let that stop you," she said. "We help victims potentially recover the money they've lost. We help them through the system. And we want to hold these heartless people accountable for their crimes when they prey on the most vulnerable."
She urged people who suspect they've been victims of a scam to call her office's Elder Abuse Prosecution Unit at (619) 531-3245 or report it to law enforcement immediately.