Angelina Fay is the family matriarch, a widow who always tries to be there for her children, grandchildren and extended family.
So when the Belleville woman, 89, heard she won a $700,000 sweepstakes prize, she was thrilled. It was a chance to help her family.
It happened last week when she came home and found a message on her phone.
The message said: “We have a package for you at Los Angeles Airport which needs to be picked up. You must call the airport back immediately to gain access to the package.”
She said she immediately called the number — (323) 306-7864 – and heard what sounded like a very official-sounding recorded greeting from the Los Angeles International Airport. The message had several options to key in to reach certain departments.
But at the end of the message, a live person picked up the line.
The person identified himself as John Cane, and he knew Fay’s name and address.
“Congratulations, you are the second prize winner of our sweepstakes,” Fay said she was told.
Cane had instructions: Fay needed to call “U.S. Customs and Border Protection at Los Angeles Airport” to verify her identity.
Fay was given a new number to call – (866) 438-0228.
When she called, there was another official-sounding message, this one from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s office of the director at the airport.
After the message, someone who called himself Sargent Bill picked up the line.
“Bill explained that I won $700,000 in a certified check and $50,000 in cash, which were in the box waiting for me at the airport. He even gave me a tracking number,” said Fay, who said figured the winnings were from one of the many Publishers Clearing House contests she’d entered over the years. “By this time, I was so excited and I was planning on how my family could benefit from the money.”
Bill said to get her winnings, Fay needed a background check. This was because of changes in law after Sept. 11, designed for those who win more than $50,000 to make sure the money doesn’t get into the wrong hands, Fay said she was told.
She’d have to send a $975 cashier’s check to pay for the background check.
“You must not fill the check out to anyone,” she said she was told. “It must be left blank.”
The check would go to a post office box in Florida.
“I explained to Bill that my family was not going to believe me,” Fay said.
“Yes – many families don’t believe it. There are many scammers out there – this is not a scam. You did win and if you don’t claim it, the money will go to the next person in line. So you have to act fast. Get to that post office.”
Fay explained she didn’t have much money, but Bill promised she’d get a refund when the background check was complete.
“He got me so excited about the money and he assured me over and over again that this was the real thing,” Fay said. “It had to be true. They were so convincing and genuine.”
After passing the background check, Bill explained, Fay would be picked up by a Brink’s truck. It would bring her to the bank to deposit her winnings.
Fay said she again told Bill her family wouldn’t think it was true, and she asked what she should do.
Get to the post office, Bill told her.
Fay asked her grandson for a ride.
When he heard why, he Googled the numbers Fay called.
“He found multiple people reporting this very same number and scam,” Fay said. “He explained it to me but I refused to believe him.”
Fay’s grandson went to his mother – Fay’s daughter – and she, too, told Fay it was a scam.
“She actually called the number and pretended to be someone else with a different name – and they told her that she had won and gave her the same instructions,” Fay said.
Still, Fay said, she didn’t want to believe it.
Still excited, Fay called her other daughter, Jina Oveissi, who set up a conference call with Fay and Bill.
On the call, Oveissi tried to get any kind of confirmation it was the real thing. Other than being told it was the “American Sweepstakes,” they learned nothing.
She asked for a supervisor and was given a number to call.
On a new conference call, they listened to the official-sounding airport message, and Oveissi tried to select several of the options. None worked, she said, and when the message ended, someone named Brian Thompson came on the line.
Oveissi asked for the company address. Thompson wouldn’t offer one, but said she could check AmericanSweepstakes.com (a site with only one screen that leads nowhere, and Bamboozled learned is registered to a company in Australia) or the website for the Los Angeles airport.
Then Thompson said they had an office on the third floor of the MGM Grand casino in Las Vegas.
Oveissi made it clear she knew this was a scam, and they disconnected the call.
The scammers tried to call Fay a few more times, but she learned how to block the number.
“I’m a pro at blocking calls now,” she said.
She said wanted to share her story so others won’t fall for similar tricks.
“If you don’t recognize a number or a person who is calling you – please don’t trust anyone,” Fay said. “Always be skeptical. If you won something, you shouldn’t have to put any money out.”
She warned others to always get information in writing.
“If you have someone you can talk to or relatives – please check with them before sending any money to these scammers,” Fay said. “And learn how to block numbers on your telephone or cell.”
Fay’s words are very wise, and we have a few items to add.
Scammers are crafty. Many have a talent for reading their would-be victims. They extract small bits of information from their intended prey, and they use those nuggets to sound more convincing.
They use official-sounding names, logos and even recordings to give the appearance of legitimacy to their fraud.
They cast a wide net and try to take advantage of the vulnerable: older folks who may be lonely, younger people who lack financial savvy and experience, and those who for whatever reason are in financial distress and searching for a way out.
Please talk those you imagine could fall for a scam, and take extra care with the older folks in your life.
Encourage them not to answer the phone if they don’t recognize the number.
If they’re concerned it’s an important call, tell your loved one to write down the number and you can return the call.
Tell them that if they do answer and someone tells them they’ve won a prize, they’re in trouble with the IRS or law enforcement, says their family member is in trouble and needs money or threatens or scares them in any way, they should hang up.
Help your loved ones to play offense by looking into services like Nomorobo, which eliminates most unwanted robocalls.
And help them activate call blocking features offered by their phone carrier.
Help them become anti-scam experts — just like Angelina Fay.