Officials advising seniors to be wary of lottery scams

·2 min read

Jun. 11—Isolated seniors, staying at home during the coronavirus pandemic, have proved easy prey for scammers hoping to gain access to their life savings.

According to a new Better Business Bureau study, sweepstakes and lottery scams resulted in higher financial losses for those 65 and older during the pandemic than the previous three years combined. Of those individuals targeted, 91% reported monetary loss, ranging from $900 to $37,000.

Before the arrival of the novel coronavirus from overseas, the Federal Trade Commission had reported a 16% decrease in complaints from people duped by scams. But with "people at home and alone and more vulnerable" during the pandemic, scamming, especially in terms of dollar losses, spiked, according to Stephanie Garland, BBB's regional director for Southwest Missouri. Scammers' victims, age 55 and older, lost an average of $978, she said.

One victim — a resident of Blue Eye, Missouri, which is south of Table Rock Lake — said he lost $6,500 to overseas scammers.

"For four months, I've been getting ongoing calls from people claiming to be part of Mega Millions," one of America's two big jackpot games, the man said in a statement Thursday. They told him that he'd won $8.5 million and a Mercedes.

"They have been making me pay them — now up to $6,500 — through gift cards," he said. "They won't quit calling me."

That's how these successful scams work, Garland said. They prey on people "who are interested in using the imagined winnings to help their families and communities; these are people who are really kind and really compassionate, and really want to give back to their community."

By having their victims mail them gift cards — for example, paying $499.99 to receive the first free $5,000 — it helps them avoid credit card transactions that are federally protected, or money or wire transfers that can be easily traced by the police.

"The scammers are telling (seniors) to go and buy the gift cards, that (the money in them) is going to pay for the taxes and the fees to get the (winnings) to them, and then they'll receive their Mega Millions," Garland said, "so people are tricked into thinking it's a good investment, when it's not."

These scammers will sometimes spend months befriending an individual, she said, pretending to be their best friend and telling them they have their best interests in mind.

"They groom these people, and unfortunately, they are very successful at it," Garland said. "For them, it's worth taking a couple months' time to get a $37,000 investment."

In almost every case, "it's nearly impossible for people to get their money back," she said.

To avoid these scams, Garland encourages seniors to speak to their loved ones and to remember that people can't win something they haven't entered.

Go to www.bbb.org to report fraudulent activity.