Sunday, November 14, 2010

Massive Make-a-Wish Phone Scam Stealing Millions From American Elderly

From our friends at

(This is from the Federal Citizen Information Center and is an article done by 20/20)

A massive phone scam exploiting the good name of the Make-A-Wish Foundation has siphoned more than $20 million from unsuspecting Americans and has been escalating in recent months. Authorities say it is fast becoming one of the ugliest telemarketing schemes to target the elderly in years.

Swindlers pretending to be calling from such government agencies as the Internal Revenue Service and the Federal Trade Commission have put a new twist on an old con. They are hiding offshore, thousands of miles away, but they're using internet phone technology to disguise their location. Victims see a 202 area code on their phones when the calls come in, and dial seemingly authentic U.S. phone numbers to call the scammers back. "Unlike the standard telemarketing frauds . these weren't people hiding behind a phone number you couldn't call -- a voice you couldn't recreate. These were people who left telephone numbers and would talk to you," said the Make-A-Wish Foundation, who became alarmed when they started hearing from multiple victims a week about the fraudulent calls.

One team of con artists spoke with a senior citizen who fell for their scam, the owner of a Virginia modeling studio. They called her almost every day for more than a month. Eventually, they had persuaded her to send more than $300,000 through Western Union and Moneygram in what she thought were luxury taxes and insurance fees on the $1.1 million prize they promised would be arriving any day.

"She said, we've been trying to reach you.' Very, very warm. Very kind. 'There is money here for you . it is sitting here on my desk. And I am just determined this money is yours. And I just want to help you get it,'" victim recalled.

During a six-month investigation, ABC News obtained never-before published recordings of the phone calls and tracked down two fugitives who have been hiding in Costa Rica. The two men have been indicted in the scheme but avoided extradition because they also held Costa Rican citizenship.

The scammers allegedly set up dozens of boiler rooms so scammers could call into U.S. homes claiming to be awarding sweepstakes winnings from the Make-A-Wish Foundation. The scammers made their money by convincing the victims to pay "luxury taxes" or "insurance" in advance on winnings they will never receive.

Boiler Room Raid

Federal prosecutors have alleged that the scammers reaped millions installing internet phone lines in the illegal call centers.

Federal officials thought they had extinguished the scam in 2006 when they conducted a dramatic raid on 16 boiler rooms in the Costa Rican capital of San Jose.

But U.S. authorities have marveled at the scale of the scam that has regenerated - believed to be the product of the Costa Rican citizens who remained free after the 2006 raid. And they say the potency of the swindle remains breathtaking. One early victim in Florida wired more than $800,000 to Costa Rica on the promise of a million-dollar sweepstakes check that would never arrive.

But among those most alarmed have been the officials who lead the Make-A-Wish Foundation, which relies on the trust of the public for its funding. Earlier this year, the non profit organization posted a fraud alert on its website.

"These people around hiding offshore -- willingly destroying people's lives by taking every nickel they can suck out of them. And they're using the good name of the Make-A-Wish Foundation to do it.

The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement have set up a hotline for victims to call to report having been ripped off. It is 1-866-DHS-2ICE. The Federal Trade Commission has posted information about the scams and advice for victims on two special web pages here and here and has also been compiling a list of complaints for law enforcement agencies to pursue.

To read the complete story and hear the taped recordings click here

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