Phone-scam warning issued to SoCal elderly

WESTWOOD, Calif. U.S. Postal inspectors and agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Federal Trade Commission warned Thursday that mass-marketing scams that target the elderly over the phone or on the Internet are a growing crime problem.

"If somebody instructs you to wire them money or to send them money in some other way, hang up. Don't do it," said David Horn, regional director of the Federal Trade Commission's Northwest Regional Office.

"I don't know how I got fooled," said Frank Villela, victim of a scam. "I feel dumb."

Villela didn't hang up, and con artists who called and gained his confidence took him for $18,000.

"First they wanted $5,000, so I sent $5,000," said Villela.

Villela is a Korean War veteran. But that didn't make any difference. He says the scammers kept adding taxes and fees they claimed had to be paid before they could send him his cash prize.

"I started thinking, 'I sent so much money already, might as well send another $5,000,'" said Villela.

Federal prosecutors say Villela's story is all too common.

A chart of sales tactics seized in a raid on a boiler-room operation listed techniques like "Keep the victim talking," and "Never allow them to say no."

Prosecutors estimate millions of people are victimized in phony prize scams, foreign lottery schemes, advance-fee loan rip-offs and mystery-shopper cons.

"These people will say anything at all, anything: If you're a Christian, they're a Christian too; if you have a spouse who's ill, they have a spouse who's ill," said Ellyn Lindsay, assistant United States attorney.

Once they gain your confidence, federal prosecutors say scam artists then try to become your best friend and after that, will take you for every cent they can get. In one recent case, they persuaded an elderly woman who had just lost her husband to hand over $2 million.

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