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Busted: Con Artists Exposed

An inside look at the worst frauds and how scammers target their victims

Scamalot, Busted (Illustration: Sean McCabe)

These con artists have been behind several common scams. — Sean McCabe

En español | Warren Stelman knew the drill: Buy lists of filled-out sweepstakes entries to identify promising leads. Get computer-based phone lines and Manhattan voice-mail boxes to mask the true place of operation — the Dominican Republic. Then start calling older Americans.

Congratulations! You've won the sweepstakes! What are you going to do with all that money?

For "winners" envisioning college for the grandkids, perhaps, or financial independence for themselves, the several thousand dollars that Stelman and his crew requested upfront, supposedly for taxes and insurance, seemed a small price to pay.

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By the time Stelman was arrested in August 2012, he and his alleged collaborators had collected nearly $1 million from at least 78 victims — most in their 70s and all over 50. In September 2013, he was sentenced to six years in prison.

Stelman's scam and his success with targeting older people were, sadly, nothing new.

Roughly one-third of all scam victims are 65 or older, though the age group comprises only one-eighth of the population. Based on reports, victims who are 55 and up lose $3 billion a year, but the true figure is many times higher, because most of these crimes go unreported out of embarrassment.

Take action: Sign up for Watchdog alerts and learn how to protect yourself from identity theft and fraud

Sweepstakes cons like Stelman's are among the most common scams hitting older Americans. But keep a special eye peeled for these other hoaxes that rank with the biggest and baddest.

The Six Common Cons You Should Avoid

Scam Artist Mugshots Enhanced, Tracy Vasseur (Illustration: Sean McCabe, Courtesy Colorado Attorney General)

Tracy Vasseur and her mother posed on dating websites as U.S. military personnel serving in Afghanistan. They made off with more than $1 million over a three-year period. Mother Karen was sentenced to 12 years in state prison; daughter Tracy (above) received a 15-year sentence. — Sean McCabe, Courtesy Colorado Attorney General

Romance

Romance scammers cruise online dating websites, posting hundreds of messages a day.

After weeks of cyber sweet talk tailored to potential victims' responses, schemers inevitably request money — typically via wire transfer — saying they need it for a plane ticket to come visit or to deal with some personal emergency.

See also: Proceed with caution — online dating tips

These cons cost American women 50 and older at least $34 million in 2012 — two-thirds of all the money lost in romance scams. Men 50 and older reported losing $5 million. The average financial loss from these schemes is more than $10,000 per person.

Scam Artist Mugshots Hargrove (Illustration: Sean McCabe, Courtesy Columbus Division of Police)

John W. Hargrove targeted older people for a phony charity he called Ohio Veterans Source. He was sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison and ordered to pay more than $2,000 in restitution. Hargrove was convicted for the same con in 2006. — Sean McCabe, Courtesy Columbus Division of Police

Charity

When help is needed, older people are often among the first to open their hearts and wallets. This helps make them the group most vulnerable to scams feigning aid for veterans, needy or sick children, or victims of a recent disaster, says Bennett Weiner of the BBB Wise Giving Alliance.

See also: 7 ways to spot fake charities after a disaster

Most over-the-transom email solicitations for donations are fraudulent. Never give credit card information to telephone or front-door solicitors. Stick with reputable charities whose names you've known for years.

Next page: Scams that target family, health care and finances. »

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