The foreign-based con artists behind one of the most relentless telemarketing frauds in recent years have stolen more than $20 million from mostly elderly Americans by playing on their hopes and fears, as evidenced in audio recordings of their calls obtained exclusively by ABC News.
During the hours of recordings, one elderly victim repeatedly pleads with a litany of callers who falsely claim to be from a sweepstakes company in Las Vegas, from the insurance company Lloyds of London, and from such government agencies as the Internal Revenue Service, the Department of Commerce, and the Federal Trade Commission. The scammer repeatedly asks her to send more money to pay taxes and fees, and promises a windfall is on its way.
"I don't have the money," she says. "I told you, I've taken it all out of my bank account."
Click Here To Listen To A Phone Scammer At Work
The scammers are unrelenting, advising her to put the payment on her credit cards.
ABC News agreed to protect the name and voice of the victim on the tapes, but she is one of thousands believed to have been called by a group of Americans and Canadians who have set up dozens of boiler rooms in Costa Rica. Using internet phones, they are able to trick victims into believing they are government workers located in Washington, D.C., and invite their marks to call them back at phone numbers with a 202 area code.
Victims are first told they have won a six-figure second prize in a sweepstakes sponsored by such trusted charities as the Make a Wish Foundation. But they are asked to send roughly 10 percent to cover taxes. After the victim shows a willingness to wire money to the swindlers, they up the ante.
In the call linked here, scammers can be heard telling the victim there has been a mistake – she has actually won the grand prize. "You're going to be shocked when I tell you what the actual amount is ma'am," says a scammer. "The prize that you're receiving, ma'am, is $1.2 million." Moreover, she is told the check has been flown to an airport near her home, and that "officers" are going to be bringing it to her. A series of callers then advise her that she must forward thousands of dollars to cover the cost of insuring the shipment before her check can leave the airport.
Officials with the Federal Trade Commission have urged those receiving such calls to hang up the phone immediately, and report the calls to them at www.ftccomplaintassistant.gov.
They say Americans are experiencing the second generation of this scam. Federal agents disrupted the scheme in 2006 with a massive raid, conducted in concert with Costa Rican officials. The U.S. Department of Justice secured the convictions of 37 participants, including 50-year prison sentences for the ringleaders of the fraud. But some of those alleged to be part of the scheme remained in Costa Rica, out of reach of American law enforcement because they had gained Costa Rican citizenship. Authorities said the men who were left behind helped rekindle the scams.
ABC News tracked down two of the fugitives earlier this month. In interviews broadcast last week on Good Morning America and 20/20, wanted fugitives Roberto Fields Curtis and Andreas Leimer proclaimed their innocence – denying they were a part of the rip-offs.
Curtis told ABC News chief investigative correspondent Brian Ross that he was unwittingly involved, gathering cash from a Western Union he operated and delivering it to illegal call centers. He said he thought money was the product of sports betting, which is legal in Costa Rica. Leimer said his ex-wife was responsible for installing the internet phone technology at the illegal boiler rooms, not him.
Joe Gonzalez, an investigator with the United States Postal Inspection Service, told ABC News that he believes both men were lying. Gonzalez says the U.S. government has amassed ample evidence that the two men were both willing participants in the scam.