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TJ Jerke, Forum News Service, Published May 28 2013

ND attorney general warns of telephone lottery scam after scammers call him

BISMARCK - The state’s top attorney said Tuesday that “if you are asked to send money before you can receive your prize, it is always a scam.”

Millions of dollars have been stolen from people around the country by callers based in Jamaica claiming people have won a cash lottery prize and then requiring them to pay various taxes and fees before receiving the prize.

North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem and U.S. Attorney Tim Purdon held their first-ever joint news conference to educate North Dakotans and show how severe the telephone scam has gotten in the state, saying it has reached an “epidemic” level.

“Don’t make it easy for a thief to steal your money,” Stenehjem said while standing in his office. “If you get a call that you have won a lottery or sweepstakes, hang up immediately.”

The scam has largely targeted elderly, vulnerable adults, some of whom have fallen prey to the scam.

In March, a federal indictment was unsealed showing 15 Jamaican and American nationals were being charged with taking more than $1 million from at least 20 victims in the lottery scam. The cases are pending.

The indictment lists one victim as an 83-year-old woman from Harvey, N.D., who sent seven separate checks worth more than $150,000 after callers claimed she had won a $19 million cash prize.

“We all need to remind our older loved ones that there is never a valid reason for someone to require you to pay money up front before you can collect a prize,” Purdon said.

An estimated 30,000 calls are placed into the U.S. a day from Jamaica as part of the scam, Purdon added.

The scammers use various tricks to make it seem like the phone calls are local, sometimes using North Dakota’s 701 area code.

Stenehjem said it’s too difficult to know how many North Dakotans have fallen victim to the scam, as some may be too embarrassed to report it or may not know it’s a scam.

Stenehjem and Purden said they both have been called as part of the scam.

Stenehjem said the callers do not care about any do-not-call laws that penalize people who spam residents who have placed their phone numbers on a do-not-call list.

“Too often they are aware of the chances of getting caught, but they don’t bother with it,” he said.

If someone falls victim to the scam, the money is sent in various ways, eventually making it to Jamaica. Stenehjem said many people have used a MoneyPak card -- a card that can be purchased at many stores that acts like a prepaid debit card.

He said the callers only need the number on the back of the card to secure the money.

But Purdon said the largest hurdle the scammers face is physically moving the money from the U.S. to Jamaica, which has helped with the investigation.

Kate Nichols, U.S. postal inspection team leader, said the law enforcement arm of the Postal Service has 107 cases now related to the Jamaican calls, and has seen at least 905 victims with more than $16 million in losses.

The U.S. attorney’s office is coordinating with the FBI, U.S. Postal Inspection Service and Homeland Security Investigations to continue to investigate the scam.

People who have responded to these calls are urged to contact the consumer protection division of the North Dakota Attorney General’s Office at (800) 472-2600.