Lottery Scams Target Seniors

One day’s worth of mail for one victim.

Better Business Bureau sees scams reported to us by individuals in all age groups, but I have particularly noted that lottery scams appear to prey on seniors. Or maybe seniors are more susceptible to this type of scam because of their age.

Just in the past few months, I have had reports of three different individuals, ranging in age from late 60s to early 90s, who have fallen victim to lottery scams. We’re not talking a few hundred dollars, either. Two of these victims have sent more than $30,000, and the third has wired more than $100,000 to scammers. And they haven’t just been scammed once, but several times. Who knows if it was the same or different con artists that scammed these individuals multiple times?

It appears that once someone falls victim to a scam, their name ends up on a list. These lists of “easy targets” are often sold or traded between scammers.

I spoke to one woman who sent checks to alleged charities that requested money for sick children. She received phone calls as well as letters asking for her help. She told me it was difficult to turn down these requests because they involved children. Now she receives upwards of 40 pieces of mail a day from fake lotteries and charities. She wonders if the money she sent really went to any sick children. I don’t think so.

So why are seniors more vulnerable to these types of scams? There is evidence that as we age, we lose cognitive ability, and we may process information more slowly. These scammers are skilled at convincing the elderly that they must act now or they will lose out on their winnings. They are coerced into making instant decisions, leaving the individual no time to think, research or talk to family members. Additionally, seniors may be isolated and living alone. They react emotionally rather than rationally.

Seniors are prime targets for financial exploitation for other reasons, too. They may have a significant nest egg, although plenty of low-income victims are at risk. At an older age, this is especially devastating because there is no time to recoup financial losses. Once victims realize they have been scammed, they may be too embarrassed to tell family members or friends. They also may not remember details to help with investigation and prosecution. In two of the cases I mentioned, the victims were eventually threatened with bodily harm to themselves or their families if they did not continue to send money to the scammers.

Some important reminders:

  • You can’t win a contest you didn’t enter.
  • It is illegal for U.S. citizens to participate in foreign lotteries.
  • You do not have to pay money in order to receive a legitimate prize.
  • Never wire money or put money on a pre-paid debit card – both are the same as sending cash. There is no way to trace the money or to get it back once sent.

One helpful note I received while doing this research: Due to multistate settlements with Western Union and Moneygram, the Attorney General’s office can request that a fraud victim be blocked from wiring money. If you have a family member who has been a victim, call 206-464-6684 (WA), 503-229-5576 (OR) or 907-269-5200 (AK) for help. Also contact your local Better Business Bureau office at 206-431-2222 (WA), 503-212-3022 (OR) or 907-562-0704 (AK) to report the experience.