Sweepstakes Scam Hit “Old and Vulnerable”

A man from Washington state and his accomplices in California made a bundle of money with a phony sweepstakes racket that convinced people they had won a substantial cash prize.

Letters to that effect were mailed out containing a check. Recipients of the letter were told to deposit the check and send a portion of the money back as a fee to process the sweepstakes winnings. The checks were bogus, but before the recipient realized the check would not clear, the victim had withdrawn funds for the “fee” and sent it back to the scammers.

One alert victim among the many who had lost money to the thieves tipped off police that he had sent a money order for $2,600 to one of the ringleader’s false identities at a commercial mail box location in Covington, Washington.

Various false identities

A subsequent investigation revealed that many other people had sent money orders or wired funds to various false identities used by the con artist. The victims sent the dough thinking the fee was just a small part of their winnings.

When an arrest was finally made, law enforcement officers found fake drivers’ licenses in seven different names, all with the same picture. Agents contacted MoneyGram and Western Union and requested a list of all payments that had been sent to the fake identities. According to MoneyGram and Western Union, their records showed that over 120 victims had sent $346,760 to the fake names.

Three co-conspirators were arrested in California and are being prosecuted there.

The day after the arrest in Washington, the operators of the mail box store alerted police when another letter arrived for that same false identity. Inside was $1,000 cash from a 77-year-old woman who thought she too was a sweepstakes winner.

Finally brought to justice

When Eugene Maganya, 30, was finally brought to justice and sentenced to two years in prison, U.S. District Judge Thomas S. Zilly remarked that the scam specifically targeted those who are “older and more vulnerable.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Woods described the impact on the victims. “This was a cruel scheme. It preyed upon people’s hopes and wishes, leading them to believe that they had won a substantial amount of money. Many of the victims undoubtedly were down on their luck, and the letter must have appeared as a godsend. Very few of the victims likely could afford to lose the money that they did. Many of them lost thousands of dollars. Just as important, many of the victims emerged from the case scarred, less likely to trust others.”

Investigators traced $238,346 of the wired funds to specific victims, but were unable to identify the victims associated with about $100,000.

The Federal Trade Commission advises the public to “Throw away any offer that asks you to pay for a prize or a gift. If it’s free or a gift, you shouldn’t have to pay for it. Free is free.”

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