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Patricia Tackes thought she had hit it big.
After the 83-year-old Hilton Head Island resident applied for a sweepstakes she saw in a magazine in January, the checks started pouring in -- $1.5 million, $2 million, $10 million.
They were sweepstakes offers and came from companies with names like "The National Lottery Foundation."
Patricia, a retired medical technologist, and her husband, Jerry, a retired mechanical engineer for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, believed they were on their way to riches.
"They were so convincing and acted so innocent," said Patricia, who handled the majority of the hundreds of phone calls and offers the couple received during the past year. "They make you feel so
But there was a catch.
Before she could collect the winnings, the couple were told they must pay taxes on the cash. Only then would the money be delivered to their Hilton Head Plantation home by a company representative, Patricia said.
So she began to send thousands of dollars in money orders through Western Union, MoneyGram and Federal Express. The money was wired to Canada, the United Kingdom and Jamaica to people who claimed to be lawyers, financial managers or immigration officials. They said they would soon send the couple their prize
The fees varied. Sometimes it was $2,900 for tax and transfer fees; other times, $4,000 for processing fees.
Once, the couple were told an extra payment was needed because it was a holiday, Patricia said.
In October, Patricia sent $48,000 to a man who said he was arrested at the airport while he was on the way to deliver their cash. He told Patricia he needed the money to get out of jail.
During the past 10 months, Patricia drained the couple's savings and wired more than $78,000 in money orders trying to collect prize money. When she sent a final payment to British Columbia in November and the money never arrived, she finally realized it was a scam.
"Everything's gone," she said. "They knew everything about us -- everything we had in our savings account. I got to the point where I didn't even know who to believe."
They filed a report with the Beaufort County Sheriff's Office, but nothing could be done. The money was gone, and the culprits left no trace.
Sweepstakes, lottery and "person in need" scams are pervasive and on the rise, said Maria Audas, a spokeswoman for the S.C. Department of Consumer Affairs.
During the past fiscal year, the agency has seen a 50 percent increase in the number of complaint calls about swindles, Audas said.
"We've had a huge rise in many of these scams, especially the fake-check scams."
The Tackeses received fraudulent checks with the names of well-known companies like GEICO, Marriott and Delta Air Lines.
"Nine times out of 10, they're scammers that aren't playing by any rules or regulations, and the feds often can't even trace them," Audas said. "There's not much we can do at the back end, but if you catch credit card misuse, we can stop it."
Money orders or wire transfers, however, are virtually untraceable.
"That's why the scammers ask for your money that way," she said. "In a case like that, getting the money back is not an option."
In one instance, Patricia tried to wire money to Canada, and a MoneyGram employee told her it was a scam. The employee blocked the transfer, Patricia said.
But only a few weeks later, the couple received a different lottery offer and another fake check, and Tackes went for the bait again.
MoneyGram employees are trained to educate consumers on ways to safeguard their funds and personal information to avoid becoming victims of consumer fraud, said Lynda Michielutti, a spokeswoman for MoneyGram International.
"People are desperate -- it's just so unfortunate," Michielutti said. "We have agents who turn customers away because we know it's a fraud, and we know they go somewhere else, but we try to stop it."
MoneyGram employees block more than $1 million each month in fraudulent transactions, she said. The company has warnings printed on each send-form.
The company tries to stay abreast of the most current and popular scams, but con artists always come up with new schemes.
"There are some things that are easy to spot, like a call from a grandson who says he's in jail in Canada," Michielutti said. But because of privacy issues, employees can't directly ask customers why they are sending money.
"If they decide to go ahead and send it, there's nothing we can do," she said. "They have to make the ultimate decision."
<strong>One step ahead</strong>
Although the Tackeses filed a police report with the Beaufort County Sheriff's Office, local police departments aren't equipped to handle the scams, especially if the con artists are overseas.
"It's not in our jurisdiction," said Cpl. Robin McIntosh, sheriff's spokeswoman. "The victims are here, but the crime isn't happening here."
McIntosh said deputies will file a report and advise consumers about the steps they can take. Most often, fraud victims are told to contact the FBI, but it too is limited in what it can recover.
"The scams evolve daily, and they come via fax, letters and e-mails," McIntosh said. "It's really a matter of protecting your personal and financial information and guarding it very closely."
<strong>Targeting the vulnerable</strong>
"When the economy is bad, scammers get more desperate and creative, and people get desperate," said Audas, of the S.C. Department of Consumer Affairs.
Seniors are especially susceptible, Audas said. "They seem to prey on seniors a lot, mostly because of a general understanding that older consumers are going to be more trusting."
Mike Walsh, executive director of Mental Health America of Beaufort/Jasper Counties, said seniors also may be vulnerable to scams because of memory loss or social isolation.
"From a counseling perspective, it can be a memory thing, or it can be that people are just generally good-natured and get taken advantage of," Walsh said. "The seniors think, 'I've got to help these people.' And in this type of economic climate, these scammers tend to be more aggressive."
The Lt. Governor's Office on Aging formed a task force last year to collect data statewide to create a centralized reporting system for senior fraud victims, said Frank Adams, the agency's director of communications.
Adams said the office held about 20 public hearings to meet with seniors across the state.
"We heard from a lot of people, and we heard a lot of horrible fraud stories," he said. "One resident came forward with a suitcase full of mailings his elderly neighbor had received in the course of 60 days."
Adams said that without a centralized reporting system, the state has difficulty tracking the scams.
"When the economy gets better, we were hoping there would be funds to create a system that would track the reports," he said. "It's going to be a long, hard process, but something needs to be done."
Patricia Tackes is embarrassed about being a scam victim but said she needed to come forward in the hope that she could prevent others from being swindled. The Hilton Head resident has chronicled the past year in four folders stuffed with every piece of correspondence, money order receipt and fake check she
"If I had known something about this, I could have stopped it," she
"We were going to move into (a) retirement home, but now we don't have the money. I just want to help other people who are in the same predicament."
She can't believe she was fooled for so long.
"We're honest," she said. "We were raised Catholic, and we just believe everybody. It's just torn up our whole life."