Lottery Scam Targets Elderly

Telephone Con Game Costs Victims Several Billion Dollars

This report was originally aired Sept. 26, 2004.

Every year, one out of three adults in the United States gets a call from a con man, and the very best in the business of telemarketing fraud are known in the con game as "the closers."

They are the smooth, persuasive talkers who convince people to send them millions of dollars based on a phone conversation.

Recently, the most talented closers in the business have been working something called the Canadian lottery scam, one of the largest, most successful cons ever.

Authorities believe variations of it have been used to swindle American victims - most of them retirees and widows - out of as much as $5 billion.

This is how it works. You get a call from someone saying you just won a huge amount of money in a Canadian sweepstakes, and the money will be delivered just as soon as the taxes are paid on the winnings.

Sound pretty good? Well, as Correspondent Steve Kroft reports, it sounds even better when you hear it from the closer.

William Foley (not his real name) made his living ripping off the elderly. He told people he was a lawyer, but he's actually a former bouncer at a strip club.

60 Minutes met him in Montreal, Ground Zero for the Canadian lottery scam because of the light sentences handed out for telemarketing fraud in Canada. But Foley had just been arrested and extradited to the United States, where he pleaded guilty to defrauding people in 24 states.

"I was one of the best there was at conning people out of their life savings over a telephone," says Foley, who spoke on condition of anonymity. He claims he has scammed millions of dollars from his victims. "I am currently awaiting sentencing on federal charges for my crimes, and in a nine-month period, they estimate $7 million (U.S.) -- and that's in nine months."

Foley says he's been conning people since 1995. "I always wasn't as good as I was now, but I would have to say, $30-40-50 million, perhaps, I coaxed out of people's pockets."

He did it by playing on the American dream of instant wealth, using kindness and patience to insinuate himself into the lives of elderly and lonely people.

"I developed rapports with my customers. I called them my clients, who were really the victims. I spoke to them every day," says Foley.

"I had to make the person on the other end of the phone feel like they were sitting in my office, but in a much smaller chair on the other side of the desk. And I was the one who controlled their destiny. I was the one who could change their lives for them. I could make them happy."

Like most of Foley's victims, Elva Giddings, 77, lived alone and had control over her own finances. But her biggest weakness was that she liked to enter sweepstakes. She would fill out forms she received in the mail and send them in, not realizing that sponsors compile lists of people who respond and sell them to telemarketers. The con men call them mooch lists.

That's how Foley got her number. When he called with news that she had won a second prize and $240,000 dollars in a big sweepstakes, Giddings wanted to believe her efforts had finally paid off. Kroft played her a tape of that conversation:

"He was smooth, very smooth. Almost too smooth," says Giddings.

Foley said all she had to do to collect the $240,000 dollars was to pay the taxes on her winnings, which came to $10,000. She also had to promise not to tell anyone, even her family and friends, until the sweepstakes sponsor was ready to announce the winners.

Giddings sent him the check, and as soon as it cleared, Foley reloaded the scam, telling Giddings that the first prize winner had been disqualified, and she could claim the $2 million grand prize if she could come up with another $70,000 to cover the additional taxes.

"I thought, I've done this much and I've gone this far," says Giddings. "Suppose he's telling me the truth and I'm looking at enough money to do some things that I'd love to do."