Authorities in five countries have arrested 565 people in fraud schemes that netted more than $1 billion. Many of those arrested are West Africans who were attempting variations of the notorious Nigerian Internet scam, the Justice Department said.
Many of the victims were elderly or immigrants. One scam consisted of telephone calls to Spanish-speaking U.S. residents who were seeking to establish credit and were promised credit cards in return for a couple of hundred dollars. The cards didn't exist, said Federal Trade Commission Chairwoman Deborah Platt Majoras.
"Those that prey on consumers know their vulnerabilities," Majoras said at a Justice Department news conference with Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. "They zero in on those who will actually believe them."
The scams were carried out through telemarketing, mass mailings and the Internet and included bogus lottery, prize and sweepstakes offerings, invitations to pour money into nonexistent investments and supposedly legal enticements to avoid paying taxes, officials said.
In the Nigerian scam, criminals send junk e-mail to thousands of unsuspecting people offering them a share in a large fortune in exchange for a smaller amount of money up front. The con artist takes the money and then disappears.
Gonzales called the 14-month investigation, dubbed Operation Global Con, "the largest enforcement operation of its kind."
The operation resulted in the arrest of 139 individuals in the United States, and an additional 426 arrests in Canada, Costa Rica, the Netherlands and Spain. Authorities executed 447 search warrants in the five countries as part of the operation, and 61 individuals have been convicted in the United States to date. In addition, the Federal Trade Commission brought 20 civil actions against 140 defendants in illegal fraud schemes.
"Mass-marketing fraudsters think they can use modern technology to operate from anywhere in the world with impunity," said Gonzales. "The virtual task forces that we have built with Canada, Costa Rica and the Netherlands provide a new model for us to bring these international con artists to justice."
Last week, Costa Rican and U.S. authorities made arrests in a telephone-based scam in which prospective victims received offers of up to $4.5 million from the Sweepstakes Security Commission and other fictitious organizations. The winners first had to pay "insurance fees." Some victims were contacted again, this time by people pretending to be customs officials who demanded additional payments, the department said.
Victims of Internet fraud schemes should file complaints online with the Internet Crime Complaint Center, a joint project of the FBI and the National White Collar Crime Center, at www.ic3.gov. Victims of telemarketing fraud should contact the Federal Trade Commission's Consumer Sentinel, either by calling the FTC's toll-free number, 1-877-987-3728, or by filing an online form available through its website,www.ftc.gov. Victims of Canadian-based telemarketing schemes can also contact PhoneBusters at 1-888-495-8501 or www.phonebusters.com.