For years Rose Hanken had entered various contests and sweepstakes—sometimes even paying a $20 fee. So she was skeptical at first when the phone caller told her that she had won a $350,000 prize.
"I know all about those phony lottery and sweepstakes scams," says Hanken, of Delray Beach, Fla. But this was different. "When the caller said he was from the Federal Trade Commission," she says, "I thought it was legitimate."
He identified himself as Randy Marks—the name of a real FTC attorney, who is listed in the online FTC employee directory. He told the 88-year-old retired college business teacher that to claim her prize she needed to wire $1,400 to an address in Costa Rica, "to insure the check with Lloyd's of London."
Hanken had her doubts. "The call came on April 1—April Fools' Day—and I remember telling the man, 'You better not be fooling me.' He laughed and said, 'Of course I wouldn't.' "
Her defenses weakened somewhat when he gave her a phone number to call if she had any other questions. To check him out, Hanken immediately called directory assistance to get the FTC's number in Washington. The operator gave her the same phone number the caller had given her. Hanken says she dialed the number and someone answered, "Federal Trade Commission." "When I asked for Randy Marks," she says, "I was put right through to the man who called."
Since Hanken doesn't recall hearing a dial tone after getting off the phone with "Marks" and before dialing 411, it's likely the caller never hung up and instead handed the phone to an accomplice posing as the 411 operator. The number Hanken was given is not for the FTC, and the real Randy Marks never spoke to her.
"The Federal Trade Commission is not in the business of collecting money or supervising any sweepstakes," says FTC official Tara Flynn. "With legitimate sweepstakes, you never have to pay any insurance, taxes or shipping or handling charges, let alone wire it to a foreign country."
Hanken was cheated out of $7,850—she wired money to Costa Rica three more times after the scammers called back to say she needed "more insurance" because her jackpot was actually $3.5 million.
Such schemes—relying on smooth talking and fancy phone work—are on the increase and are often aimed at older people. "We get at least three complaints a week from local retirees who get calls or mail claiming they have won sweepstakes or foreign lotteries," says Al Payne of the Delray Beach branch of Seniors vs. Crime, a statewide volunteer watchdog group.
The FTC is now investigating Hanken's case, after Scam Alert provided the agency with the phone number the scammers gave her, which was still in operation. But it's very difficult if not impossible to recover money victims have lost in phony offshore contests. The best protection is to ignore e-mails, letters and phone calls that ask you to pay money to get money.