Q. My grandmother was a victim of a lottery scam. Is there any progress with organizations fighting fraud to stop this injustice?
A. We understand your frustration and thank you for the question. A new report by Better Business Bureau says sweepstakes, lottery and prize schemes are using ever-changing methods to hurt victims financially and emotionally. Those frauds concentrate on seniors, targeting them by direct mail, cold calling, social media, and even text messages and smartphone pop-ups. BBB warns consumers to be on guard against these serious frauds and their perpetrators.
The report — "Sweepstakes, Lottery and Prize Scams: A Better Business Bureau Study of How 'Winners' Lose Millions Through an Evolving Fraud" — notes such scams bilked at least $117 million out of a half million Americans and Canadians in 2017 alone. Seniors are the most frequent target and suffer the largest losses by far in these scams. The report found the scams commonly originate in Jamaica, Costa Rica and Nigeria.
The report recommends stronger law enforcement efforts on three fronts:
-In Jamaica, which has seen an increase in violence related to lottery fraud profits
-In the U.S., where law enforcement is urged to step up extraditions and prosecutions of overseas fraudsters operating in the U.S.
-Globally, as law enforcement agencies worldwide are encouraged to take steps toward holding deceptive mailing organizations accountable and stopping mail fraud.
The report also urges social media platforms to take steps to weed out fake profiles and make fraud reporting easier.
Among the report's key findings:
The majority of lottery or sweepstakes scam victims are between 65 and 74 years old. Among that age group, people who recently experienced a serious negative life event, and who expect their income in the near future to remain steady or decline, are even more likely to be victimized.
Sweepstakes/lottery fraud can strike through many channels — phone calls, text messages, pop-ups on a smartphone's internet browser, social media, and mailings.
In 2017, 2,820 individuals reported sweepstakes and lottery scams to BBB Scam Tracker. Those reports show a median loss of $500, with wire transfer as the most common method of payment.
Jamaica is a major source of "cold calls" to victims who are told they have won money. Although similar calls come from Costa Rica, the scam has had a major impact in Jamaica, where the amount of money generated by lottery fraud has resulted in gang wars between rival fraud groups. That has also led to a dramatic spike in violence. More than 95 percent of reported fraud in Jamaica involves lottery or sweepstakes scams.
BBB offers the following tips for consumers to avoid lottery or sweepstakes fraud:
-True lotteries or sweepstakes don't ask for money before you claim a prize. If they want money for taxes, themselves, or a third party, they are most likely crooks.
-Call the lottery or sweepstakes company directly to see if you won. Publishers Clearing House (PCH) does have a sweepstakes but does not call people in advance to tell them they've won. Report PCH imposters to their hotline at 800-392-4190.
-Check to see if you won a lottery. Call the North American Association of State and Provincial Lotteries at 440-361-7962 or your local state lottery agency.
-Do an internet search of the company, name, or phone number of the person who contacted you.
-Law enforcement does not call to award prizes.
-Talk to a trusted family member or your bank. They may be able to help you stay in control of your money in the face of fraudster pressure.
To view the full report, visit www.bbb.org.
Jim Winsett is president of the Better Business Bureau in Chattanooga