Telemarketing scams have in some cases become more profitable than drug trafficking, U.S. and Costa Rican authorities have told ABC News, and the result has been a proliferation of illegal boiler rooms filled with expatriate Americans.
"There are millions of dollars that the bad guys have made in perpetrating these types of schemes," Lois C. Greisman, a scam expert with the Federal Trade Commission, said during an interview for the latest edition of "Brian Ross Investigates."
Official estimates suggest the telephone swindlers operating from Costa Rica have scammed victims out of more than $20 million, and the barrage of phone calls targeting vulnerable Americans – most of them seniors – has picked up in recent months.
The callers are using sophisticated internet telephone technology to disguise their locations, telling victims they are calling from federal government agencies in Washington, D.C., and providing phone numbers with the Washington area code 202 where victims can call them back. The scammers hold out the promise of a sweepstakes windfall, but ask for taxes and fees up front.
Greisman had some blunt advice for anyone who receives such a call: "Hang up."
"The main message is this," she said. "There is no one from the federal government who is going to call you and tell you you've just won a sweepstakes. The other tell tale sign it's a fraud is if someone asks you to pay money up front. There's simply not a single legitimate sweepstakes marketer out there who requires an up-front fee of any kind."
The latest edition of "Brian Ross Investigates" also includes two other segments on the massive phone scam, which uses audacious, high-tech methods -- and the good name of a legitimate charity -- to bilk elderly Americans.
"Unlike the standard telemarketing frauds … these weren't people hiding behind a phone number you couldn't call -- a voice you couldn't recreate. These were people who left telephone numbers and would talk to you," said Paul Allvin, a vice president of the Make-A-Wish Foundation, who became alarmed when he started hearing from multiple victims a week about the fraudulent calls.
And talk they did. One team of con artists spoke with Patricia Bowles, the owner of a Virginia modeling studio, almost every day for more than a month. Eventually, they had persuaded her to send more than $300,000 through Western Union and Moneygram in what she thought were luxury taxes and insurance fees on the $1.1 million prize they promised would be arriving any day. She told ABC News Chief Investigative Correspondent Brian Ross that she was devastated when she learned the woman claiming to be from the U.S. Treasury Department was really just a crook, and her money was never coming back.
"She said, 'Mrs. Bowles, we've been trying to reach you.' Very, very warm. Very kind. 'There is money here for you … it is sitting here on my desk. And I am just determined this money is yours. And I just want to help you get it,'" Bowles recalled.
"It's trust in people. I'm not living in a dream world. Trust me, I have been shaken out of that many times. But I think this time it has taken away that very, very core of me that is just sad to have to [relinquish]."